The people who run the medical marijuana clinics in Washington state control the supply and prices.
Patients pay about $10 per gram of marijuana, or about $280 an ounce. Street prices can command $400 an ounce or higher.
The law requires anyone who's growing to keep the crop out of public view. Indoor growing can be difficult and expensive considering the necessary equipment.
One Federal Way area patient is currently growing 11 cannabis plants in his home - four plants under the "legal limit" of 15.
The cultivation room, lined with white tarp for maximum reflection, boasts a pair of 1,000-watt lamps to light up the garden. The unmistakable scent strikes your nose as soon as the room's door cracks open. Cannabis plants sway and flutter under the breeze of an oscillating fan perched by the ceiling. A couple of plants have started to flower. Electricity for the garden adds about $30 to each month's utility bill, the patient estimated.
This 37-year-old professional, who asked to remain anonymous, suffers from chronic pain after a motor vehicle accident 15 years ago. For the past six years, he has used marijuana for medicinal purposes. He no longer seeks relief from name-brand pain pills such as Vicodin or Percocet.
When medicating, he prefers edibles, although he occasionally smokes the cannabis. He also provides medicine to a handful of local clinics.
"This is something natural," he said. "It comes from the Earth, with nothing added to it but water."
A common concern among patients, aside from protection, is perception. If the state truly recognized the medicinal benefits of marijuana, he said, then the state would open doors for insurance companies and pharmacies on behalf of patients. He also believes that patients should be allowed to grow more plants in order to maintain proper personal supply. Furthermore, he worries that thieves as well as "the feds" or other law enforcement will kick down his door.
"Treat us like the patients that we are," he said, adding that the law must distinguish between illegal users and those in the medical world. "They need to give patients the leeway they say we have."
A 50-something patient from Des Moines, Wash., who asked to remain anonymous, has smoked marijuana most of his life.
For the past 10 years, he has tapped marijuana to battle severe pain from a back injury as well as hepatitis C. Previously, he relied on hydrocodone to relieve the pain. For one six-year stretch, he was consuming 160 pills a month, he said.
His osteopathic doctor recommended substituting the painkillers with marijuana.
"I don't need anything else, just marijuana," he said.
He is also critical of Marinol, a pill manufactured by the Solvay pharmaceutical company that contains the active ingredients of cannabis. He said Marinol "does nothing. It makes you feel really weird. It's nothing like marijuana at all."
However, the law hangs over his head. During a messy divorce, his ex-spouse alerted police to his cannabis cultivation. He was subsequently arrested in 2007 for possession and cultivation. Through the help of Seattle-based attorney Douglas Hiatt, his case was dismissed following a year of good behavior.
The Des Moines police, who originally arrested this patient, recently checked on his crop.
"My main worry is the police - are they going to let me do this?" he said. "I don't want the police to get pissed at me. If they want me, they can take me down."
Likewise, he lauds marijuana for reducing nausea and stimulating his appetite. He disagrees with those who grow hundreds of plants to seek a profit, instead preferring to stay self-sufficient. He said he helps local patients install equipment for growing and donates to clinics.
"I'm a Christian and I don't want to cause trouble," he said. "God put (marijuana) here for a reason. He wouldn't put it everywhere in the world if it wasn't."
Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle-based attorney, defends medical marijuana cases across the state for free.
"If they would research marijuana and allow doctors to prescribe it, then we wouldn't have a problem. They've got the power to straighten things out pretty fast," Hiatt said.
Hiatt first entered the cause in 1996 after volunteering his legal services for clients suffering from AIDS. He soon began meeting more sick people who relied on medical marijuana for relief. Hiatt's mother and brother-in-law were medical marijuana patients, he said.
Hiatt eventually received a $60,000 grant from the Marijuana Policy Project, which enabled him to take a lot of free cases. Last year, Hiatt's taxable income was $7,000, he said.
"I do a lot of free work because I believe that people who are trying to stay alive and fight off serious illness should be left alone and not be bothered like this," he said. "I didn't pick this. It picked me."
Armed with encyclopedic knowledge of medical marijuana laws, facts and history, Steve Sarich ranks among Washington state's bolder activists.
Sarich is executive director of CannaCare, a patient advocacy group founded five years ago and based in Kirkland. Sarich, who suffers from a degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis and arthritis, said his organization operates on very little funding and does not have 501(c)3 non-profit status. The organization generates money mostly from donations, Sarich said, stressing that his business model depends on volunteers - and does not call for making money off the sick and dying.
"I started this just because I thought patients ought to have a place where they can call, always get information, always get a friendly voice that's not paranoid," said Sarich, who is also president of Sentry Medical Group, which writes recommendations for patients.
"We also run a medical clinic, so patients whose regular doctor will not write a recommendation will have some place to go," said Sarich, who is currently involved in forming the American Association of Medical Marijuana Patients.
Sarich criticizes the state's medical marijuana laws and guidelines for a 60-day supply. He also ran into trouble with law enforcement in January 2007. Federal agents raided his Everett headquarters and seized nearly 1,500 plants, according to a Seattle Times report. One DEA agent in the report likened Sarich's operation to a drug-dealing enterprise. Sarich was never arrested or charged with any crime, he said.
"If they came to your house at gunpoint, took your Vicodin or your Viagra out of your medicine cabinet, robbed you and destroyed your home, oh and by the way, took your money - they'd all be in prison," Sarich said of drug enforcement. "But they apparently don't feel that way about medical marijuana."
On May 20, Sarich led a discussion about medical marijuana with nursing students at Renton Technical College.
The unmistakable odor of marijuana laced the room as Sarich spread an array of medicine and smoking accessories across a table: Hard candies, brownies, tea, coffee, Goldfish crackers, a tub of green butter, multicolored wafers, a glass pipe, a vaporizer, capsules, tinctures, and two baggies of purple and lime-green buds.
Ken Martin, a board member of CannaCare, accompanied Sarich to the presentation. Martin suffers from a brain tumor, which he believes was caused through his work as a nuclear engineer at the Hanford Site, located near Richland, Wash.
Hanford is considered the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. Martin is among thousands of residents who lived "downwind" and claim the site put them at an increased risk for cancer and other diseases. There is an ongoing court battle between these residents and the federal government.
Martin was diagnosed in 1997 with a meningioma brain tumor, which is benign. Before turning to medical marijuana, Martin ingested up 10 to 12 medications daily, which caused him to nod off at places such as the dinner table. Nowadays, Martin said he takes only morphine and an anti-nausea drug, augmented with medical marijuana, which he inhales with a vaporizer.
Martin still finds it difficult to get out of bed some days, he said. Medical marijuana takes the edge off throbbing headaches and nausea associated with his condition.
"This has allowed me to get up and enjoy life just a little more," said Martin, a resident of Cheney, Wash.
The two men from CannaCare were eager to speak to the students. In the health care industry, nurses frequently have first contact with medical marijuana patients.
Nursing organizations nationwide have publicly endorsed medical marijuana rights in their respective states. The Michigan Nurses Association urged voters to approve a proposal in 2008 that provided safeguards for patients in Michigan. The measure passed at 63 percent, making Michigan the 13th state to enact legal protections for patients. The American Nurses Association recognizes marijuana as a worthy treatment under medical supervision.
After the session at Renton Technical College ends, several nursing students gather around the table for an up-close look at the medicine Sarich brought. Amid wide eyes and a few snickers, two students ask about a tin of multicolored medicated wafers. With a look of subtle defiance, Sarich pops a yellow wafer in his mouth.
Federal Way Mirror Editor Andy Hobbs can be reached at email@example.com or 253-925-5565.
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