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Legal Medical Marijuana Moves Slowly To Mainstream

Maureen O'Hagan, The Seattle Times, 29th August 2006

If you have:Chronic pain, chronic nausea, muscle spasms, seizures, cancer, AIDS, Medical Marijuana may help.

Call the number in the ad and you'll find a local clinic where, for a fee, a doctor will write a note saying he believes the illegal plant will help what ails you.

Not long ago, such a business plan likely would have police asking a lot of questions. But for two years, The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation has been operating the Bellevue, Wash., clinic completely aboveground, seeing thousands of patients.

It has Washington's 1998 medical-marijuana initiative to thank for that. The law, approved by 59 percent of voters, said people with certain debilitating conditions could use marijuana so long as their doctor said it could help.

The biggest question has always been this: How is a sick person supposed to get the stuff?

"People in the government want the pot fairy to come deliver it," said Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer who crusades on behalf of medical-marijuana patients.

He laments - curses, actually - that medical marijuana isn't part of the mainstream, that sick people with doctors' authorizations are still getting charged with crimes, that some police officers don't even remember the law was passed.

Despite the problems, however, patients are finding their way to marijuana. Over the last eight years patients and entrepreneurs have pieced together an ad-hoc network of products and services ranging from cookbooks to co-ops to classes that help patients get their voter-approved medicine.

Ask Hiatt about The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation's Bellevue clinic and he'll roll his eyes. "Pothead capitalists," he calls them. "Doc-in-the-box."

Indeed, if you look around the clinic, there's not much aside from several dozen chairs, piles of file folders, and buckets of pens.

That's really all you need for the business model devised by Paul Stanford, president of the nonprofit that oversees clinics in Washington, Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado. Altogether they've seen 14,000 patients in four years, he said.

The group's 2003 filings show revenue of $352,000 - and for most of that year, its only operation was in Oregon.

A marijuana advocate since the 1980s, Stanford, of Portland, long ago realized that a lot of doctors are skeptical of marijuana. Providing a friendly doctor, he thought, would fill a niche. He placed an ad and soon hired Thomas "Tim" Orvald, a heart surgeon.

Stanford's clinics do not provide marijuana. Instead, they exist solely to provide doctor's notes for patients who qualify.

On a typical day, Orvald sees 30 to 40 patients. The clinic is open one or two days a week.

Orvald confirms that the patient has a standing diagnosis that is covered under the law, and writes a letter stating he or she could be helped by marijuana. The charge is $150 to $200, depending on income, although Stanford said they see some low-income patients free of charge.

"There are about a dozen different quasi-legal/illegal organizations in the state who are doing dispensaries," Stanford said. Quasi-legal? "They're selling marijuana but the police turn a blind eye to it."

Seattle Police Capt. Steven Brown said officers know it's going on. But "we haven't been involved in that, quite honestly, in terms of priorities."

It's easy to run afoul of Washington's medical-marijuana law. It doesn't legalize the sale of marijuana, even to qualified patients. And patients can grow it only for themselves. The exception is that patients can designate a caregiver, who can grow for them and only them.

This leaves the co-ops playing a game of semantics. Patients don't buy their marijuana; they make donations. Growers don't sell it; they're patients helping other patients. Even the larger-scale operations are labeled "P-patches," where several patients tend to the crop.

Patients say they're sometimes provided poor-quality marijuana; some complain about "moldy pot." Quantities are variable.

Mark Wachter, a 46-year-old multiple-sclerosis patient from Renton, Wash., who uses the drug to battle constant pain, has encountered all of that.

"The frustrating part to me is being a sick person and having to go out and find my medicine," Wachter said. "It's not like you can go to Bartell's [Drugstore]."

This is where Steve Sarich, a relative newcomer to the Washington medical-marijuana scene, is filling another niche.

A 55-year-old with short hair and a phone that's constantly ringing, he does not look like the stereotypical marijuana user. Degenerative disc disease led him to use marijuana to ease the pain in his back. Now he's leading an advocacy group called CannaCare.

"Our goal is to get these patients up and self-sufficient," he said. He does that by teaching classes on marijuana growing and supplying starter plants.

Sarich got motivated last year when he heard about another organization like his that was broken up by Seattle police. That's when he first learned of the department's rule that medical-marijuana patients are limited to growing nine plants.

Sarich and a friend decided to survey law-enforcement agencies around the state to see how they were enforcing the law. The responses ran the gamut and were often wrong, he said.

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