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How Michigan marijuana patients get their medicine

Sam Wolson/Daily
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BY JESSICA VOSGERCHIAN
Magazine Editor
Published September 22, 2009

On the afternoon of Aug. 11, Dominick’s was as bustling as could be expected on a sunny summer’s day. With barely a table available on the back patio, the tin of friendly chatter and the tinkling of sangria-filled jars created a lighthearted atmosphere. But tucked away in the far back, a much more serious conversation was going on. There, people from all walks of life had come together to discuss their one unifying factor: the desire to treat themselves or others with medical marijuana.

While from the outside seeming like a casual gathering like any other taking place on the patio, this meeting of the Michigan Marijuana Patient Collective was anything but carefree. Nearly all of the 30 or so participants suffered from a debilitating condition, from leukemia to chronic migraines. Some people were so ill they said they barely leave their homes except for doctor appointments. But for registered patients, such meetings are one of the only available means to figure out how to get marijuana.

Michigan took a progressive step when voters approved the Michigan Compassionate Care Initiative last November. But in some crucial ways, the program is out of touch with needs of the patients it serves. Michigan isn’t alone — out of the 13 states that administer medical marijuana programs, only California provides a means for dispensing to patients through cannabis pharmacies. Dennis Hayes, an Ann Arbor lawyer who specializes in drug law, said that states declined to operate dispensary systems to avoid being direct suppliers in the face of federal laws prohibiting marijuana.

“One of the problems is that the state can’t encourage people to act collectively,” Hayes said. “The reason is no state can publicly endorse breaking a federal law.”

But chances that the War on Drugs will heat back up and target medical marijuana are slim to none. Following California’s example, states could — and many people say, should — provide guidance for marijuana patients who, by virtue of being approved for the program, have serious conditions that make extra help all the more valuable.

As it stands right now, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program presents a catch-22 for patients: You can smoke weed, but it’s up to you to figure out how. Vague regulations governing the program also induce anxiety for patients who are afraid that in trying to get their medicine, they’ll run afoul of state drug laws.

FEELING LIKE A CRIMINAL

Even though marijuana is now legal for thousands of people in Michigan, registered patients are still skittish about speaking outright about it. All patients and caregivers interviewed for this story asked that their full names not be printed so as not to draw attention to their activities.

Several people talked about how smoking marijuana still feels illicit even with a registered patient card in pocket. The same people who passed around lit pipes at the Dominick’s meeting were unwilling to be identified as marijuana smokers to the outside world. Some cited the stigma attached to the vilified substance.

“We’re from the Reagan Drug War era,” a patient named Kirk said. “This is crazy.”

But besides a residual feeling of guilt surrounding marijuana, there are other more tangible threats dogging patients and caregivers. The Michigan Medical Marijuana Program has only been operational since April, which means the nuances of the law are not yet well known by both patients and law enforcers. A patient couple in Madison Heights ran into trouble in March when the police raided their house and confiscated 21 plants, The Detroit News reported. The two had been approved by a physician as patients but were waiting to receive their cards in the mail. A judge later dismissed the charges and derided the new marijuana law for its lack of clarity, saying it was the “worst piece of legislation (he) has ever seen in (his) life.”

The problem comes down to the law’s guidelines, which initially seem clear but become confusing when applied to the transfer of marijuana from caregiver to patient. The law stipulates that a caregiver may possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and 12 plants for each of up to five patients. A patient who has authorized a caregiver to grow marijuana may possess 2.5 ounces of usable product. But does that mean that 5 ounces can be held in the name of one patient, or just 2.5?

It may seem like splitting hairs, but patients feel like they need to be as careful as possible. They do live in a state that has a long history of throwing the book at marijuana offenders. Ann Arbor lawyer Dennis Hayes knows just how bent against marijuana the courts can be. Hayes has worked on drug law since 1972, when he helped create Ann Arbor’s infamous pot law — which instituted a small fine as the maximum punishment for marijuana possession in the city. He represented defendants in drug cases until the ’90s, when he stopped taking those cases out of frustration toward the war on drugs.

But as soon as Hayes heard about the campaign to put medical marijuana on the 2008 ballot, he came back to the cause. The tide had turned for medical marijuana in Michigan, he said. Unlike less organized attempts to put it on the ballot, last year’s movement had better leadership and wider support.

“It was very clear when I saw what was going on with this one that these people had it together,” Hayes said.

The medical marijuana law began as a grassroots effort, and deciding how the program will operate has also been a community affair. Before the medical marijuana program began, Hayes and many other advocates attended public hearings regarding proposed regulation guidelines. Advocates shut down plans to record the actions of caregivers and patients to an extent that could threaten privacy or incriminate them in the case of a federal investigation.

“They first proposed that there be detailed inventories of who got what pot, when, from whom — very, very detailed tracking,” Hayes said. “I guess the threshold issue here is that the state strongly opposed this leg to begin with.”

COMMUNITY IN LIEU OF PHARMACIES

Michigan might not know how to treat marijuana users as anything but criminals. Since the state offers little assistance in obtaining medical marijuana, a network of community support groups has helped patients get their needed drug.

The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, a marijuana advocacy group stationed in eight medical marijuana states, has already set up four clinics in Michigan designed to examine patients and issue recommendations for medical marijuana cards. The foundation not only educates patients about the effects of medical marijuana, but also advocates the legalization of marijuana for recreational and industrial use.

Organizations like the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association maintain websites with articles and forums to educate patients and caregivers. The Ann Arbor-based Association of Medical Marijuana Caregivers is currently establishing a database that will locate available caregivers within a certain geographical area. The locator tool doesn’t yet yield results, but the volunteer effort to help patients shows a system that is, in fact, rooted in compassion.

“When you have someone who is chronically ill, you need to make it easy on them, not hard, to find their medication,” said Jacqueline Cooke, who volunteers for the Association of Medical Marijuana Caregivers. “You see a lot of blogs and a lot of forums with patients who just have these questions. Your heart just sort of goes out to them. It’s just so difficult and it shouldn’t be difficult because it’s legal.”

Hayes, the Ann Arbor lawyer, is also the co-founder of the Medical Marijuana Patient Collective. He said he formed the group to help patients and caregivers find each other, learn about growing techniques and compare experiences. For patients who were never recreational smokers, medical marijuana community meetings are invaluable in figuring out how to attain their medicine.

At the Dominick’s meeting in August, patients seemed split between people who had been already using marijuana to treat their pain previous to the initiative and people who are just trying it now.

One marijuana convert at the meeting was a professor at Eastern Michigan University, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her reputation at work. Suffering from glaucoma, back pain and chronic headaches, the professor had been taking so much morphine that it interfered with her teaching.

“It was such heavy doses,” she said. “It just makes you sick. What would I do if I even had more pain?”

The professor had never smoked marijuana except once in high school, but when a friend suggested she try marijuana, she found it suited her much better than the morphine. After being approved as a patient, she was able to find a caregiver at a patient meeting who would grow and harvest marijuana for her.

Her caregiver, Brenda from Manchester, Mich., was also at the Aug. 11 meeting. Sitting with her fiancé Randy, a registered patient she also grows for, Brenda was on the lookout for prospective patients. As a caregiver for both Randy and the EMU professor, Brenda can legally serve three more patients, which would allow her to grow 60 plants in total. She said she is considering making her caregiver service a full-time job.

“The more and more people that I meet, the more that appeals to me,” she said.

PORTRAIT OF A PATIENT

Among the networking patients and caregivers on the Dominick’s patio was Joe, a leukemia patient at the University Hospital. Joe was different from the others from the meeting. He wasn’t trying to find a caregiver — he had been doing that for himself for years. He wasn’t looking to become a caregiver. In fact, he hasn’t even become a registered patient yet.

Even though he has an obvious qualifying condition, Joe hasn’t applied for a card because he has been waiting to have a consultation with his main doctor at the University Hospital to get his approval.

Earlier in the year, his doctor had been concerned about Joe smoking marijuana and inhaling chemicals on the buds. As a substitute, Joe was prescribed Marinol, which is a synthetic cannabinoid meant to mimic the effects of marijuana. But Joe said the drug was less effective and took longer to work — “I was going bonkers,” he said.

Since being diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Joe has realized the place for medical marijuana in his pain management system. At first, he said, he turned to marijuana for the first time in years to deal with his feelings about his diagnosis. But he soon learned that marijuana can’t be used to avoid your problems.

“You’ll box it up and box it up, and sooner or later, your box is full and you have to deal with,” he said. “It doesn’t work. I’ve tried.”

Joe now uses marijuana for moderate daily pain that doesn’t require something as heavy as morphine. It helps him overcome nausea, develop an appetite and get on with his life. For a cancer patient as active as Joe, the ability to lessen pain without getting bogged down by heavy-duty pain killers makes for a more fulfilling life.

That is why he is working on a project that he hopes will placate his doctor’s concerns about street-bought marijuana while keeping his medicine always at hand: his own organic hydroponics grow room.

Right now, Joe has 12 plants in a small grow room that he is preventing from flowering by keeping them in 22.5 hours of light a day. He is working on finishing a larger grow room with the help of some younger friends, who often come over to work on projects in Joe’s loft and mechanic shop. When he moves the plants into the main room later, he will change their lighting schedule to 12 hours of light so they will flower.

“See how tall that ceiling is?” he said. “We’re going to make them big.”

Joe hopes to convince his doctor that marijuana can be beneficial if managed in a safe way. If the doctor still won’t see the value in medical marijuana, Joe said he will find another who has learned about the treatment.

“How can you make a decision about something you haven’t studied or been to a seminar on?” Joe said. “I would rather have a doctor who’s trained in the treatment of leukemia than a doctor who (has) just heard of the treatment of leukemia.”

Joe is used to figuring things out for himself. It’s what he prided himself on during his 18-year career as a Dodge mechanic, and it’s what he prides himself on now as a cancer patient who is trying to make the most of his remaining years.

“You tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to ask you why and I’m going to figure out a way I can do it,” Joe said.

Joe’s home in Ionia is a testimony to his determination and indomitable spirit. After he was diagnosed, Joe moved to be with his mother on a large plot of land his niece inherited. With his mother in the house, Joe decided to turn a barn loft on the property into a makeshift apartment. The loft has no glass windows, and the only heating is a radiation system in the walls and concrete floors.

It is not the type of living situation you would expect for a leukemia patient who has lived much longer than expected in blast cell crisis. But Joe has more plans for the place. Along with the grow room, Joe is currently adding a master bedroom and bathroom.

Originally a car mechanic, Joe has made himself a jack-of-all-trades through researching building and growing techniques online. In that way, Joe is a model for all of the state’s medical marijuana patients who, in the absence of a state-run dispensary system, have had to engineer their own way to get medicated.