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October 10, 2009 -- New York Times (NY)

Marijuana Licensing Fails to Chase the Shadows

By Abby Goodnough

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SANTA FE, N.M. -- The only person in America with a state license to distribute marijuana wants to keep her identity secret.

"I'm so totally paranoid I can't stand myself," said the distributor, who runs a nonprofit group here that grows and sells marijuana for medicinal purposes and who insisted on meeting in the privacy of a hotel room.

It was not meant to be this way.

New Mexico's new medical marijuana law was intended to provide safe, aboveboard access to the drug for hundreds of residents with chronic pain and other debilitating conditions. By licensing nonprofit distributors, New Mexico hoped to improve upon the free-for-all distribution systems in some states like California and Colorado, where hundreds of for-profit dispensaries have sprung up with virtually no state oversight.

But even in New Mexico, the process -- from procuring the starter seed (in Amsterdam, via a middleman) to home delivery (by a former Marine) -- is not for the faint of heart. Those engaged in the experiment here never know if they will be arrested, because growing, selling and using marijuana remain illegal under federal law. And robbery is always a fear.

In a reversal of Bush administration policy, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in March that the government would not prosecute medical marijuana distributors who comply with state laws. That announcement has emboldened Rhode Island to adopt legislation similar to New Mexico's: it will license three nonprofit "compassion centers" to grow and dispense the drug by 2012. At least six other states are now considering the model.

But in recent weeks, law enforcement officers, some of them federal, have raided dispensaries in California and Washington State, and in the absence of any actual change in the federal law, many still fear prosecution.

Among New Mexican patients, demand has been great. In the two months since the Santa Fe Institute for Natural Medicine began dispensing marijuana, it has signed up about 400 clients, said Robert Pack, a patient on its board of directors who uses the drug to curb the side effects of epilepsy medication.

Eager patients depleted the initial supply, and the organization had to hurry to produce more marijuana this month, because weeks of rain hampered the drying and curing phase.

Twenty other nonprofit groups are seeking New Mexico's approval to grow and sell medical marijuana, but the state's Health Department will not identify them, citing privacy and safety concerns. Because the groups remain anonymous unless they identify themselves, other regulatory agencies -- the Department of Agriculture, for example, which would inspect their growing techniques -- will have no oversight.

Such secrecy seems out of keeping with the law's intent: to help medical marijuana patients emerge from the shadows and gain open access to the drug.

"I think what's appropriate is for this to be completely out in the open," said Len Goodman, a patient who started NewMexicann, a nonprofit group seeking state approval to distribute marijuana. "As long as you follow the rules, you should be able to come out of the closet and function with no fear or shame."

For the Santa Fe Institute, the production process has been nerve-racking. The marijuana plants -- no more than 95 at a time, under state regulations -- are grown in a windowless rural building with steel doors, a motion detector and, to keep the plants' pungent odor indoors, carbon filters. Despite a high-tech alarm system and the hidden location, the institute's grower, who insisted on anonymity, said he constantly feared being robbed.

"If I worked for Brink's driving an armored car, I'd probably feel about the same way," said the grower, a longtime organic farmer who said he had studied with marijuana breeders in Amsterdam.

Delivering the marijuana can also be fraught with anxiety. The Department of Homeland Security informed the group that the former Marine who serves as courier could be prosecuted if stopped at any of several Border Protection checkpoints in southern New Mexico, where many clients live.

"Homeland Security made it clear, clear, clear," the institute's chief said. "Their directive is, 'You got it, we confiscate it.' "

The institute's grower started out producing equal amounts of two cannabis strains -- one energizing, the other sedating. But the energizing strain quickly proved more popular with patients, many of whom take morphine and other narcotics for pain that leave them hazy.

"They want something that makes them really clearheaded," the grower said, adding that the energizing strain made users feel "almost like your I.Q. went up about 20 points."

While 13 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use since 1996, most give patients no help in obtaining it. In Colorado, an alternative newspaper is stepping in: it is hiring a pot critic to review the state's many unregulated dispensaries.

In Rhode Island, which legalized medical marijuana in 2007 but changed its law this year to allow nonprofit producers, it remains unclear whether towns will be able to block dispensaries from opening within their borders, or whether growers will be able to deliver to patients.

One state-approved user, Rob Mooney, said the state's licensed caregivers -- who are allowed to grow and sell marijuana to two patients each at a given time -- and street dealers "ended up selling me garbage that messed me up."

Ellen Smith, who mixes marijuana-infused oil into applesauce to ease pain from a degenerative tissue disorder, grows her own plants but finds doing so too stressful. Her plants have been stolen, she said, and caring for them requires constant vigilance.

"It's nerve-racking to have this around," Ms. Smith said of her crop, whose skunky odor scented her kitchen. "It will be great to just go to the compassion center, pick up the product and go on with our lives."

But the Rhode Island state police have raised numerous concerns about the state's model, pointing out that the required criminal check for employees of compassion centers will search only for in-state convictions.

At a recent hearing, Capt. David S. Neill of the state police asked officials from the Rhode Island Health Department who would monitor the centers to make sure they are not growing more marijuana than the law allows (12 mature plants per patient at a given time), or selling the drug to people who are not approved users.

The answer: nobody.

Dr. Alfredo Vigil, New Mexico's secretary of health, said tight regulation of medical marijuana programs was crucial.

"As you can probably imagine, we've had all manner of interesting people come forward and say, 'We want to be your producers,'" Dr. Vigil said. "If we do this in some uncontrolled fashion and some big bad thing happens, the whole program comes crashing down."

But with the federal prohibition in place, he said his state's program was a risk. "It's a tricky situation in many, many ways," he said. "As long as there's a disconnect with the federal law, it's guaranteed there will be problems along the way."

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