They started filing into a Spokane hotel meeting room not long after 8 a.m. Wednesday, clutching folders stuffed with paperwork.
A young woman in a pink "on the naughty list" T-shirt. An older man with gray stubble. Another man helping a child with a coloring book. Some limped in, others walked with canes and others appeared healthy.
But they all shared a goal: To qualify for doctor authorization to possess medical marijuana.
More than 50 people had appointments scheduled Wednesday at Spokane's monthly medical marijuana clinic at the Quality Inn. No walk-ins allowed.
"We've got a shortage of chairs and tables," said Henrik Rode, a Portland man working the check-in table. "A lot of times I feel more like a bouncer than a welcomer."
For the past year and a half, The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation in Portland has held monthly clinics in Spokane, in addition to several Oregon cities, Denver, and Honolulu and Hilo, Hawaii.
The clinics have been so popular in Spokane that organizers are considering adding a second day each month.
Most of the patients suffer from chronic pain, but the Spokane clinic also draws a significant number of people with multiple sclerosis, given the high rate of the disease in the area, said Paul Stanford, THCF's founder.
Since 2001, the group has seen some 17,000 patients, about half of whom were seeking new prescriptions; the others wanted to renew their authorizations, Stanford said.
No marijuana is dispensed at the clinics. Approved patients simply get a doctor's OK to use and possess the drug. Once they're given the go-ahead, it's up to them to grow or get the cannabis.
Washington is one of 12 states with laws permitting qualified patients to use and possess marijuana for medicinal purposes. Idaho does not have such a law.
Under Washington code, which was approved by voters in 1998, a patient must have a terminal or debilitating illness that a doctor believes would be aided by marijuana. Qualifying conditions include chronic pain, cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and glaucoma.
Once approved, patients are allowed to possess a 60-day supply, however much that may be, for their own use.
As long as patients follow the law and have proper authorization, they will not be penalized for possessing marijuana, according to the state code.
"It's written to be an affirmative defense," Stanford said of Washington's law. "It's something you raise upon prosecution."
At the clinic, patients must present medical records showing they suffer from a qualifying condition.
"We don't set appointments for someone if we're not 99 percent (sure) that the doctor will approve them," Stanford said.
Each new patient then fills out a seven-page medical questionnaire and watches a 20-minute video detailing the medical marijuana law, as well as proper growing techniques (use a 400-watt metal halide lamp, along with an oscillating fan and an exhaust fan; spray Neem oil on the leaves to combat pests). The video also recommends inhaling marijuana vapors through a special volcano-shaped device rather than smoking the drug.
"Vaporization is a lot healthier," Stanford says in the video.
Patients pay $200 a year for their authorization from the group's doctor, 74-year-old Yakima heart surgeon Thomas Orvald said. A sliding fee is available for those with financial difficulties, Stanford said.
The nonprofit THC Foundation had revenue of about $342,000 in 2004, the latest year for which records are available.
Orvald has been doing humanitarian cardiovascular surgery around the world for the past seven years. He heard of Stanford's program about 18 months ago.
"I've always been sensitive to patients in pain," he said, wearing his white coat and sitting at a desk in a hotel room.
And, he said, few things can relieve chronic pain better than cannabis.
"I would stake my reputation on it," he said.
That's the hope of a 33-year-old Spokane mother who injured her back on the job in 2005.
The nurse's assistant, who asked that her name not be used, has seen doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists to ease the pain caused when a patient fell on her. "They shot steroids into my back," she told Orvald.
She has tried narcotics, but still the pain shoots down her leg, she said.
"Every day. All day. And it's sad," she said. "It broke me down."
She has smoked marijuana and found that it eased her symptoms and relaxed her back.
Orvald granted her a permit.
Spokane resident Darren McCrea founded the group Spocannabis in 2003. A medical marijuana user himself, he now helps other patients fill their prescriptions.
McCrea's group meets 1 p.m. every Saturday at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. They talk about the best ways to take the drug and also about how patients can get it.
At first, he was sending Spocannabis members to the medical marijuana clinic in Bellevue. Then he persuaded Stanford to bring his crew to Spokane.
McCrea uses a vaporizer to inhale marijuana to treat his rheumatoid arthritis and seizure disorder.
He also dries the plant and puts it in edible capsules.
"It helps in all these different areas and there are no side effects," he said.
Added McCrea, "It's morally unacceptable to force our sick and dying into our streets to scrounge for medicine."
For more information on medical marijuana clinics in Spokane, contact The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation at (800) 723-0188 or www.thc-foundation.org.
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