When David Van Scyoc smokes a joint, he cradles it in a hand with no fingers. He takes a hit through remade lips, below a nose that's been rebuilt and on a face created out of destroyed flesh and scar tissue.
At age 2, Van Scyoc (pronounced "van sike") was caught in a garage fire that should have killed him. At 30, cancer invaded his brain, a result of his burns, and again he almost died. At 34, he lost his daughter in a custody dispute and he hasn't seen her since, nearly four years later.
Look at Van Scyoc. The scars, wounds and tattoos on his skin do well telling his story -- the full body scarring, the wound on the back of his head, the tattoo of his daughter's face on his neck. But Van Scyoc tells it pretty well, too.
"I'm never pain-free. I always have pain somewhere, whether it's in my head or on my body. [Pot] makes me feel good enough to do what I need to do," he says. Van Scyoc smokes up to a half-ounce on any given day. He is a medical marijuana patient, authorized by a doctor and covered by state law to use cannabis. Nevertheless, authorities raided Van Scyoc's house four years ago -- even though he was a legal patient at the time. They found 20 plants and less than two ounces of pot, which led to his losing his daughter.
"It's like when you have a throbbing headache, you can think of nothing else but the throbbing headache," Van Scyoc says. "Using cannabis, it distracts you. You can still feel the pain. You just don't think about it as much."
It's been 10 years since Washington passed Initiative 692 legalizing medical marijuana, yet the law remains murky. Although statistics are hard to find, police continue to raid houses, arrest legal patients and confiscate their medicine. It was just last month that the state Department of Health clarified what constitutes a patient's 60-day supply.
For those on both sides of the issue, problems remain and questions abound. How can authorities quickly tell who's authorized to use marijuana and who's not? They can't. How do patients get the medicine they're allowed under the law? It's difficult and mostly illegal. How do doctors know if pot is effective as medicine? They're just beginning to understand.
An estimated 25,000 people in Washington have been authorized to use medicinal cannabis, but the line between legal and illegal is still hard to nail down.
"I used to use the analogy, 'If you speed, we're going to give you a ticket. But we're not going to tell you what the speed limit is,'" Van Scyoc says of haziness surrounding the law. "How can you follow the law when the law doesn't make sense?"
Every Saturday, in the basement of a Lutheran church not far from downtown Spokane, 60 to 70 people get together and break the law.
They're all sick -- with illnesses ranging from multiple sclerosis to cancer to Crohn's disease -- and most are unable to grow pot on their own. That's why they're here, to get medicine. They're members of Spocannabis, a patient support group that offers growing tips, education on the law and their rights, and medicine.
I'm standing outside the church one Saturday in October, waiting for the group's founder and de facto leader, Darren McCrea, to show up. A middle-aged man approaches me and we chat for a moment when he asks, "Are you the guy with the medicine?"
I tell him no, that I'm waiting for McCrea. Our conversation continues on other subjects before he says, "Is it good? The medicine?"
"I'm not who you think I am. Really," I say.
"Right, right. I get it," he says, flashing a smirk. "Well, I can't wait to see it," he says and walks away.
Finally, McCrea arrives. He parks and steps out of his car. He's wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and black Birkenstocks with black socks. His hair is buzzed short and he wears dark sunglasses. In McCrea, there's a constant and slight quaking, as if tiny earthquakes rumble beneath his flesh. His doctors aren't sure what causes McCrea's tremors, but they believe it has something to do with a mass in his brain.
I introduce myself. Looking me up and down, he asks, "Are you a narc?" I assure him that I'm not, but I'm struck by being mistaken for both a drug runner and a cop in a matter of minutes. Here are people seeking medicine to which they have a lawful right, yet the gathering is still shrouded in paranoia and mistrust.
Part of the problem is the law itself: When it passed in 1998, it failed to specify how patients could get cannabis. It said they could produce it, possess it and use it, but that was about it. If someone had no plants to begin with or no room to grow a pharmaceutical garden, then, under the law, they were pretty much out of luck. Or they were forced to break it, like the folks at Spocannabis.
McCrea tells me to be discreet until after he introduces me to the group. Inside the church, McCrea walks to the middle of a circle of about 50 people. Surrounding him are legally licensed patients young and old, their faces describing various levels of illness -- from the composed countenance of a hidden disease to the grizzled looks of the wheelchair-bound.
"Sorry I'm late everybody," McCrea begins. The obvious focal point of the group, McCrea acts as the leader for many reasons. He formed the group six years ago. He organizes the meetings and he's been arrested for his efforts. And, perhaps most importantly, he's respectful and kind. At the end of his apology, he makes his way around the circle hugging every woman and shaking hands with every man. "Good to see you," he says. "How are you?"
At one end of the room, there's a mural of Jesus in a forest, surrounded by adoring people, his head glowing with perfection. At the other end of the room, some men are setting up a white tent -- a temporary pharmacy of sorts, where bags of pot will be sold a person at a time.
The men begin to divvy the pot and the quasi-pharmacy opens for business. The patients have taken numbers and now wait to be called by the order of their arrival.
"Seven seventy-nine!" yells a pretty woman with long, dark hair. She wears brown Ray-Bans, obscuring her eyes, and white running shoes.
The group may be breaking the law, but they're doing it in such a way that they just might wiggle out of getting in trouble.
The law allows for a designated provider to supply pot to "only one patient at a time." Only one patient is allowed to enter the tent at a time. It's not what the law intended, and the authorities aren't falling for it.
"That's against the law. You're not supposed to do that," says Spokane County Sheriff Drug Sgt. Chris Kehl. "The problem is they try to stretch the law as far as they can."
State Patrol Sgt. Kenneth Demello, who supervises the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force, says his unit has done investigations on groups like Spocannabis, but wouldn't comment on their activities except to say, "Our bottom line is either you're complying with the law or not."
Patients like Debbie a Spocannabis member who spoke on the condition her last name not be published say they want to comply with the law. But the group is the last and only option for many sick people, she says, including herself. "For a lot of people, it's the only way to get their medicine."
Debbie is 50 and has a warm, professional demeanor. She also has Crohn's disease, an inflammatory autoimmune disease, which causes her digestive system to swell to painful levels. Her immune system attacks her guts as if they don't belong inside her. "It feels like my insides are boiling," she says.
In her rural home near Colville, Debbie grows six outdoor plants every summer. She gets good medicine off those plants, but is out of luck during the rest of the year. "I have to supplement what I grow," she says.
She uses pot to ease the swelling and nausea that comes with Crohn's, two documented effects of cannabis and what it's used for most commonly. Cannabis is a wonder drug in many respects; thanks to a new wave of studies, scientists are just beginning to unravel the myriad ways in which it can help us. Recent research shows that marijuana can battle lung tumors in mice, fight the hardening of arteries in rats and, in a laboratory Petri dish in Europe, kill the superbug known as MRSA. Cannabis has also proven useful in treating Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis and traumatic brain injury.
Yes, the little drug is on its way to big things -- as evidenced by the fevered pace of drug companies trying to get cannabis' components patented, synthesized and into tiny, white pills. One pill, Sativex, contains two components of cannabis -- THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] and cannabidiol. This drug is already approved for use in Canada for cancer-related pain as well as nerve pain in multiple sclerosis patients.
Of course, medical marijuana has its share of critics. Dr. Arvind Chaudhry, a medical oncologist and the medical director of Spokane's Providence Cancer Center, says cannabis' benefits can be better achieved through prescription medication. "For nausea, there are 15 types of drugs. For pain, there are 15 types of drugs," he says. "There are so many different drugs in your armementarium, there is really no need for medicinal marijuana." Unlike pot, Chaudhry adds, prescribed medicine is "easier to monitor and has predictable effects, both side effects and medicinal effects."
Chaudrhy has never authorized a patient to use medicinal cannabis and he says he never will. "If anybody requests medical marijuana -- and I deal with a lot of terminally ill patients -- I would suggest going to the prescribable marinol," he says. And if his patients mention they've already started smoking pot, Chaudhry says he won't condemn them. "If they have a valid reason I would not try to discourage them. I would mention that there's a better way to do it."
Back in the church, with the medicine being sold to Spocannabis members one by one, McCrea mills about for a few minutes before beginning a casual discussion of proper trimming techniques. A dozen people gather around him.
"You want to take at least three nodes off," he says, pointing to the understory of the large AK-47 plant, a popular variety of cannabis that someone brought in to raffle off.
McCrea's on his knees next to the plant and people crane to get a view. "When you get 'em tall like this, none of the stuff down here gets any light. It's all garbage."
"Eight-oh-one," the woman calls, looking for the next patient. "Eight-oh-two!"
Sunglasses now perched on his sheared head, McCrea stays focused on the plant. "Here's the main deal. Don't water it too much," he says. "Don't water from the bottom. Water from the top."
The patients get their medicine and leave the church. Baggies of pot in hand, they get in separate cars and head home. McCrea and a few of his compatriots are the last to leave. As they break down the tent, the air inside the church is earthy, smelling a bit like pine trees.
The state Legislature had groups like McCrea's in mind when, in 2007, they instructed the state health department to review "the best practices of other states regarding access to an adequate, safe, consistent and secure source, including alternative distribution systems, of medical marijuana for qualifying patients."
"We did that," says Donn Moyer, a department spokesman, pointing out that reviewing is different than recommending. "The question of how a person gets it legally, when it's illegal, is a tough one to cipher out. The state just doesn't have any way to handle that."
According to a report done by the health department, the main hurdle to a state-run dispensary is federal law, which outlawed pot in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act. This law placed marijuana in the most severe category under Schedule I -- drugs that, according to the feds, have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Heroin, LSD, Ecstasy and psilocybin are other drugs in this class. Cocaine and opium, which can be prescribed in various forms, are not.
"It makes no sense at all. There is ample evidence showing that it does have therapeutic benefits," says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who led the effort to update the law. "We need to change at the federal level to make it a prescribable drug, to change marijuana to a Schedule II drug."
"I want it to be treated like any other medicine," says Steve Sarich, a medical marijuana patient with degenerative disc disease. "You can't arrest me. You can't throw me out of my apartment. You can't take my children away from me."
Sarich is also the executive director of CannaCare, an Everett-based group that provides patients with free legal advice and marijuana plant starters. He's been agitating for a dispensary system for a while now, and he says the Legislature and health department could have developed a way to get pot to patients but instead completely failed.
"What did the Department of Health solve? Nothing. All they did was give the cops one more yardstick by which to measure us," he says of the recent clarification of a 60-day supply. Sarich's home, which acts as CannaCare's headquarters, was raided in January of 2007 and cops found more than 1,000 plants, according to news reports. Sarich says he was in handcuffs for nine hours and the cops collected less than a quarter-ounce of pot. Though the plants -- mainly starters, says Sarich -- were confiscated, he has yet to be formally charged. "I don't want my patients going to a clandestine drug deal in a grocery store parking lot."
The first step for patients -- before drug deals in parking lots or secretive meetings in a church -- is to get permission to use cannabis from one special source: a doctor.
Doctors are protected under state law to provide these authorizations, but they walk a thin line. Without precautions, doctors can find themselves testifying before a court on the merits of marijuana -- something many doctors would prefer to avoid.
"I can tell you, 'Yes, I think that you're a candidate for the use of cannabis,'" says a physician who asked not to be named. I'll call him Dr. Tymon. "That's as far as I go. I write a note and that gives you a certificate that says you are legal in the state for the use of medicinal cannabis because of your medical problem. It says nothing about going down to the drug store and getting cannabis. I don't write a prescription for cannabis. I keep an arm's length distance about anything suggesting procurement. I don't want to have a thing to do with that."
I first meet Tymon in a room at the Quality Inn in Spokane in late October. He is an elderly, retired cardiac surgeon who performed more than 3,000 open-heart surgeries. His shock of white hair matches his doctor's coat; he looks more like a wise old wizard than a doctor. He is seeing patients on behalf of the Portland-based Hemp and Cannabis Foundation and in conjunction with Spocannabis. The Foundation is an advocacy group that operates clinics in eight states. Tymon will see more than 40 people, and all but five he'll authorize for the medicinal use of cannabis.
I sit on the end of the motel bed and he's at a desk, his improvised doctor's office. A copy of Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor is at his side, for his perusal between patients.
"I am very sensitive to what is a very pernicious problem today in medicine and that is the inappropriate use of narcotics, barbiturates and other habit-forming drugs by physicians," he says, his tone measured, explaining his support of cannabis.
"It's 6,000 years old. Jesus Christ was baptized with oil of cannabis. There's a historic precedent to all of this. This is something you can grow in your backyard. It is not made by our friends, the pharmaceutical agents."
After years in the medical community, the doctor developed a strong case of distrust for drug companies.
"Now, why is it they dislike cannabis so much? Well, take a guess," he says. "They don't want people to use freely of cannabis because you won't be using their pain medications, or other medications."
McCrea, for one, knows all about how cannabis can replace prescription medication. About five years ago, he was working at a large car dealership and quickly rising to the top as a star salesman. Within six months, he says, he was the "No. 2 guy." But the pressure crippled him. "I couldn't open [my fingers] all the way, I couldn't close them all the way, I couldn't lift my left arm over my shoulder. I couldn't lift the toilet seat with one hand. I couldn't walk from my bedroom to my bathroom. My feet were so swollen up my toes couldn't touch the ground. My knees didn't work."
McCrea has rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation of the joints and induces the immune system to mistakenly attack the joints. It's not clear how a person contracts the disorder, but genetic disposition, bacteria, fungi and viruses have not been ruled out.
He used to take prednisone, methotrexate and hydrocodeine to alleviate his symptoms and pain. He was able to replace them all with cannabis.
With a gray-speckled beard growing in pretty well, McCrea sits across from me at his kitchen table, a two-foot-tall glass bong between us. A piece of craftsmanship, the bong is speckled near its base and a glass lizard grips its side, near where the stem -- a removable piece of hardware similar to the mouthpiece for a trumpet or trombone -- is cradled. Every 10 or 15 minutes, McCrea brings the bong closer to him, packs the bowl down with his thumb and pokes at it with a toothpick before lighting the toothpick ablaze. Waving the makeshift match over the bowl, the contents cook and the chamber fills with dense smoke. McCrea makes the water boil. His exhale fills the dining room in a haze.
I ask him how much he has to smoke to replace the other drugs. Almost three-quarters of an ounce a day, he says. On the table around him sit the artifacts of his use. A mason's jar filled with green bud. A pile of cut-up leaves. Half-smoked joints. A plastic cigarette roller. Lighters. An ashtray gathering blackened toothpicks.
McCrea was arrested on June 3 for allegedly selling pot to five people. Police seized a large amount of cash and pot from his house. "It's morally unacceptable to force our sick and dying into the streets to scrounge for medicine," McCrea likes to say. If ultimately convicted -- of delivery, possession with intent to deliver and manufacturing -- he could spend some time in a federal prison. For now, charges are pending.
He's not alone. In the past year or so, enforcers of marijuana laws have been busy.
"There have been times where we'll have multiple marijuana busts in a week," says Spokane police Sgt. Tom Hendren. He adds that tallying the number of marijuana arrests within city limits is difficult because "there are so many misdemeanor arrests that are made daily."
It's hard to say exactly how many people are arrested locally on pot charges, because not a lot of stats are kept. But a look at some of the numbers gives a clue. This year, the Spokane County Sheriff's Office has arrested more than 500 people for marijuana-related crimes and raided 32 grow operations within the county's borders. Some of these arrests surely landed some people in the Spokane County Jail, but the jail doesn't keep a list of the drugs for which the inmates were busted. The regional drug task force also doesn't keep a list of those arrested for marijuana-related charges, but they've seized 316 pot plants in four raids since January 1.
Statewide, the number of arrests is also hard to pin down, but in the state's correctional facilities, 240 of 18,000 inmates are behind bars for marijuana-related convictions.
One thing's clear, however: Nationwide, a lot of people are being been arrested for using, growing or selling pot -- many more, in fact, than at any time in the past.
In 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, less than 600,000 people were arrested nationwide for marijuana possession, according to FBI records. In 2007, after 12 states had legalized cannabis as medicine, almost 800,000 people got arrested for the same offense. The number of marijuana arrests is spiking, unlike those for violent crimes, which actually dropped, from 730,000 in 1996 to less than 600,000 today.
"Anecdotally, I would say there is a connection [between states allowing medical marijuana and the amount of arrests]. Absolutely. It's all about availability," says Demello, the regional drug task force supervisor. "A few years ago, something like 144,000 plants were seized statewide. And I think this year there were 600,000 seized."
Ironically, while Demello blames the lax laws for the boom in pot growing, it's the boom that's taking the pressure off of medical marijuana patients.
"We're so busy we can only deal with people that are dealing with X amount of marijuana," Demello says without specifying what X signifies other than "mid- to high-level organizations."
"The people that are lawfully growing medical marijuana, they're usually pretty up on the law and they've got all their ducks in a row," says the Spokane sheriff's spokesman, Sgt. Dave Reagan. "If everything's hunky dory, then we're on our merry way."
Patients, though, say this isn't exactly true. They have been raided -- or know someone who has -- despite having authorization to grow. In most of their stories, the cops come in, destroy the plants and equipment and leave without arresting them or pressing charges. This information is hard to confirm since, according to the patients, no paperwork is ever done.
The situation is clearly a mess. One sure way to fix it, police say, is the creation of a patient registry.
"Unlike your local pharmacy or your traditional controlled substances that are legal by prescription, where there is a way to verify that people are in compliance, there is no way to do that with medicinal marijuana," Hendren says. "There's no registry or inventory. We have no clue [who is authorized and who is not] and that causes the biggest frustration."
As frustrated as anyone, Van Scyoc sees clearly the flaws in the law. If he had been on a state registry, if the law had been clearer or if there was a legal way to get his medicine, he might not have lost his daughter. Still, none of this could have relieved all of his pain, helped him avoid all of his ordeals or assisted him in his achievements. Burned almost 40 years ago, he's had 125 surgeries, moved from San Diego to the Seattle area and, finally, to Spokane to help care for his elderly and ailing mother.
He's earned black belts in three different schools of martial arts. "Kids are cruel and I had a lot of problems with a lot of kids.
My stepdad said, 'If you're gonna fight, you might as well win,'" he explains.
He managed a bait-and-tackle shop at one time, and he says he can tie a fly with the best of them.
His scars haven't slowed him down. But the complications from the fire in which he was burned can sound unending. His skin tears easily; Band-Aids are out of the question. He can't fly without getting massive headaches, caused by the rapid change in pressure. Four discs in his lower back are compressed because his scarred flesh would not give in when his body was trying to grow. The looks he gets. His daughter.
And with the medicine he's chosen -- stuck in a legal limbo -- he's finding new complications. He doesn't let it get to him.
"I don't hide anything from anybody. I've always been of the attitude, if you don't like it, that's your problem. It's my life and I'm going to live it the way I want. I'm the one who has to live it," he says. "I'm going to live my life the way I need to."
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