are in Medical / Webresouces
for medical marijuana is growing, but many patients are not waiting for a change
Reason, April 1996
Shortly after his arrest last May, Ronald "Stich" Miller showed off
what was left of his marijuana-growing facility and recalled his plants, more
than 100 of them, with pride. He boasts that the confiscated crop of "Seattle
Blue" clones he was cultivating in a Bainbridge Island, Washington, mobile
home could have been featured in High Times, the marijuana aficionado's journal.
The police who arrested Miller and JoAnna McKee, his live-in companion, were similarly
impressed, according to McKee. "The police told us they never had seen anything
as clean as our plants," she says.
police shouldn't have been surprised. Miller and McKee are the founders and operators
of Green+Cross Patient Co-op, Washington state's sole above-ground medical-marijuana
network, an open secret on the island and in Seattle, a half-hour ferry ride to
the east. Earlier in the year, Miller was shown delivering marijuana on a Seattle
PBS program called Health Notes, in a segment originally produced for the McNeil-Lehrer
NewsHour. In 1994, McKee unsuccessfully lobbied the Bainbridge Island City Council
for a resolution urging local police to deprioritize arrests of pot users with
painful medical conditions. The resolution also urged the federal government to
permit the use of doctor-prescribed marijuana.
through Miller and McKee's files after the arrest, the police would have seen
the signed doctors' letters required by Green+Cross, certifying that the patients
had informed their physicians of their intent to seek marijuana from the co-op.
The couple also kept a mission statement: "GCPC will not sell cannabis. Instead,
it will be given away with the understanding that financial contributions will
be accepted and should be sufficient to maintain our operation costs. Persons
who are unable to make a financial contribution shall not be denied cannabis because
of their inability to pay."
by the middle-aged couple's modest home, from which they were evicted shortly
after their arrest, Miller and McKee were not turning many people away. A "Don't
Tread on Me" banner next to their front door, which police kicked open to
serve a search warrant, advertised their attitude. (In September, a Kitsap County
Superior Court judge threw out the county's case against Miller and McKee because
police overstepped the limits of the search warrant.) Inside the mobile home,
the couple didn't have much in the way of possessions. They are frank about their
marijuana use and about why they started Green+Cross. Money wasn't one of the
reasons. "In a year's production, if we were providing for the street, we'd
be able to make $500,000," Miller says. "We did everything for donation
and cost." McKee says patients did not donate any set amount. "It was
always pay what you want."
which had been up and running for a little less than two years before the bust,
was well known in Seattle's AIDS community. Shortly after Miller and McKee were
arrested, Bill and Jim, partners and co-op members from Seattle, dropped in on
the couple for a visit and stayed for an interview I had scheduled with Miller
and McKee. Bill and Jim had found out about Green+Cross through an AIDS treatment
clinic in Seattle. "A lot of doctors don't really want to talk about it,"
Bill says. "It was a case worker who slipped a number to me and said, 'You
might want to get in touch.' " Neither man has much to lose by getting involved
with Miller and McKee. Bill has been struggling with AIDS for nine years, while
Jim suffers from degenerative arthritis, prostate cancer, and a history of strokes.
two vouch for the quality of the product provided by Green+Cross. Although his
face is gaunt, Bill says he has gained six pounds since he started using Green+Cross
marijuana, which helps him with his appetite. Smoking marijuana also helps Bill
with another constant of AIDS. "It's like running a marathon, and you ache
all the time," he says. "Marijuana helps relieve that feeling."
He especially appreciates that Green+Cross's product is, as the police had remarked,
"clean," meaning free of molds that can cause respiratory infections,
which can prove deadly to people with AIDS.
appreciates Green+Cross for another reason: He had been on harder stuff under
doctors' orders. He is using Green+Cross marijuana in a tea form and credits it
with getting him out of a wheelchair and onto crutches. He says the pot tea is
preferable to pharmaceuticals prescribed through the Veterans' Administration.
"They saved my life, but they're too freehanded with hard drugs," Jim
says of his V.A. doctors. "I wanted off morphine and codeine."
With 70 members, Green+Cross may be unique for Washington state, but it is just
one of many above-ground marijuana "buyers' clubs" in the United States.
Club members suffer from various diseases, with AIDS, cancer, arthritis, and glaucoma
the most common. Many also suffer from the side effects of AIDS treatment and
cancer chemotherapy. They seek marijuana to relieve pain, control muscle spasms
and seizures, overcome nausea, stimulate appetite, and (in the case of glaucoma)
relieve intraocular pressure that can lead to blindness. With the exception of
eight people who receive marijuana under the federal government's "compassionate
use" program, which has been closed to new patients since 1992, the drug
is not legally available as a medicine.
1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief administrative law judge, Francis
Young, concluded that the federal government should reclassify marijuana so doctors
could prescribe it, but he was overruled by DEA Administrator John C. Lawn. Many
political bodies and health organizations, including 35 state legislatures, the
American Public Health Association, the American Bar Association, and the California
Medical Association, also say the ban on medical marijuana should be lifted. In
November U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced H.R. 2618, which would allow
doctors to prescribe marijuana for a variety of conditions. But the buyers' clubs
are not waiting for a change in policy.
some 6,000 registered members, the San Francisco-based Cannabis Buyers Club is
the largest and most conspicuous of the clubs. Born in the city's gay Castro District,
the club works with the tacit approval of City Hall. As John Entwistle, the club's
volunteer coordinator, notes, the city's policy of looking the other way prevents
otherwise law-abiding citizens from supporting the street trade in marijuana.
Non-enforcement also saves the San Francisco Police Department the bad publicity
of arresting and jailing people with terminal conditions, many of them members
of the city's politically powerful gay community.
club recently moved from a small storefront to a 29,000-square-foot commercial
space on Market Street, just a few blocks away from City Hall and the state and
federal buildings. Club director Dennis Peron says rent for the multi-level space
is nominal, thanks to a club sympathizer whose wife died of cancer. At the street-level
entrance a group of bouncers screens club members, would-be members, and visitors.
A flight of steps brings you to the club's offices; another flight up is the membership
desk, where photo IDs and letters of diagnosis are inspected before membership
Rodgers, a 76-year-old volunteer working the desk, says it's rare that people
con their way into the club. Indeed, buying marijuana around the corner in the
Civic Center is much easier and can be done any time of the day or night. Jeffrey
Reed, an HIV-positive registered nurse who moved from Fort Worth to San Francisco
to work at the club, says intuition and knowledge of the AIDS culture play a big
part in screening out healthy people with bogus medical claims. "You can
tell," he says. "People who have HIV, we have a vernacular other people
don't." Entwistle says the club provides comfort and sanctuary for AIDS patients
who are approaching the end. "Doctors don't know what to do with them,"
he says. "If they die, they die happy."
the club gets most of its referrals through the gay community, not all of its
members have AIDS. Peron, who started the club after he was arrested for providing
his ailing lover with marijuana, believes that practically any painful medical
condition can be treated with marijuana. This broad approach may leave the club
open to criticism. Along with letters of diagnosis from physicians at respected
medical centers such as Berkeley's Alta Bates Hospital and the University of California
at San Francisco, a file that Peron showed me included more than a few letters
from chiropractors attesting to painful conditions that are difficult or impossible
to verify objectively.
Askeptic may also be troubled by the almost festive atmosphere at the Cannabis
Buyers Club. Beyond the registration desk is a paraphernalia counter and, most
stunning of all the club's features, a third floor not unlike an Amsterdam marijuana
bar. There club members smoke pot and socialize. A counter serving the lunch-time
crowd also sells marijuana in leaf form, in baked goods, and in salves. Behind
the counter a price board lists the available marijuana along with prices, the
best being a AAA-rated "California green" variety priced the day I visited
at $75 per one-eighth ounce. A Mexican variety costing $20 an eighth was also
available. Peron says the club sells roughly 10 pounds of marijuana, which he
purchases, inspects, and grades, a week.
flagrant nature of the club's activities makes some members of the medical marijuana
movement uneasy. Even Green+Cross's Miller says he doesn't want his operation
to be tagged as a "party room" because the Cannabis Buyers Club has
advised it. The San Francisco club had a close call last April, when the DEA and
the FBI put it under surveillance and went to the city police department for help.
The SFPD declined to get involved, and word about the surveillance got out, which
gave Peron the chance to organize a demonstration in front of the city's federal
building. The investigation was ultimately called off.
Peron's in-your-face style may raise eyebrows, he deserves respect for his organizational
and political skills. The club also serves as headquarters for Californians for
Compassionate Use, which is trying to get a medical marijuana initiative on the
1996 ballot. The most important provision of the initiative would simply recognize
what's already going on between many patients and doctors: "No physician
in the State of California shall be punished, or denied any right or privilege,
for recommending marijuana to a patient for treatment of nausea, appetite loss,
chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or other intractable
illnesses for which marijuana provides relief, providing that such medicinal use
of marijuana would, in such physician's professional medical judgment, be of benefit
to his or her patient."
There's reason to believe that the 600,000 signatures needed to get the initiative
on the ballot will be gathered if people line up to what they've been telling
pollsters. Americans are generally sympathetic to patients seeking medical marijuana.
(In fact, many are surprised to learn it is not legally available.) A November
1995 poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 79 percent
of Americans think letting physicians prescribe marijuana is a "good idea."
Eighty-five percent of respondents said they would favor making marijuana legally
available for medical uses where it has proven effective.
California, where Gov. Pete Wilson has twice vetoed medical marijuana bills, a
March 1995 poll by David Binder Research found that 66 percent of registered voters
support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes (compared to 22 percent who
favored legalization of all marijuana use by adults). Support in some parts of
the state is even stronger. In San Francisco in 1991, about 80 percent of voters
approved a referendum urging the legalization of medical marijuana. In 1992, 77
percent of Santa Cruz County voters favored pot by prescription. The state legislature
has repeatedly expressed support for the idea by large margins, as have county
and city boards of supervisors around the state. Major California newspapers,
including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, and the Orange County
Register, have editorialized in favor of marijuana use for medical purposes.
medical marijuana movement continues to attract support from conservatives as
well as liberals and libertarians. Journalists such as William F. Buckley Jr.
and Richard Brookhiser have long argued that patients should have access to pot,
and on the campaign trail conservatives are coming to share that view. During
a July meeting with the editorial board of The Charlotte Observer, Republican
presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan said the use of marijuana as a medicine
should be a matter between patient and physician. "If a doctor indicated
to his patient that this was the only way to alleviate certain painful symptoms,"
Buchanan told the Observer, "I would defer to the doctor's judgment."
question that elicited this response was submitted by Rick Doblin, a Charlotte
resident who heads the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies,
which supports pot by prescription. Buchanan's answer "was eminently reasonable,"
Doblin says. "We've done a lot of lobbying of sympathetic Republicans, but
they were afraid to take a public position. When Buchanan said that, it was refreshing."
person in particular found Buchanan's statement more than refreshing and would
later ask the candidate to confirm it. George McMahon of Bode, Iowa, suffers from
Nail Patella Syndrome, a painful and terminal neurological and bone disorder.
He is one of eight Americans who may legally smoke marijuana, provided by the
National Institute on Drug Abuse. McMahon smokes the marijuana to ease the pain
caused by his condition and by the numerous operations he has undergone. He has
another reason to want marijuana rescheduled so that it can prescribed: His 24-year-old
daughter also has Nail Patella Syndrome.
an October campaign stop in Bode, McMahon asked Buchanan what he thought about
pot by prescription. According to the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, Buchanan reversed
himself, saying doctors should not prescribe pot because it's a worse drug than
alcohol. But when McMahon told Buchanan about his condition, the candidate said,
"If everything you say is true, and I choose to believe you, I would support
you in a second." What wasn't reported by the local newspaper was McMahon's
meeting with Buchanan after the campaign stop officially ended. "I went and
talked to him later, and he said he couldn't understand why the DEA was controlling
my medicine," McMahon says. "He seemed very sincere to me."
Less prominent conservatives also support medical marijuana. A conservative Christian
from Poulsbo, Washington, began using marijuana years ago, at the recommendation
of his oncologist, while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. The man,
who asked me not to use his name, described himself as a supporter of his area's
Republican state representative, also a conservative Christian, and a backer of
a statewide anti-gay rights initiative. "I think I have an opportunity as
a conservative and a Christian to bring some credibility to the [medical marijuana]
issue and bridge a gap," he says.
medical marijuana may seem a natural issue for the left, the conditions that can
be treated with pot affect people across the political spectrum. Personal experiences
with the medical benefits of marijuana have a powerful impact not only on patients
but on their relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Their testimony makes medical
marijuana a humanitarian issue that transcends partisan differences. Supporters
of Barney Frank's medical marijuana bill note that it reads a lot like a 1981
bill co-sponsored by a second-term congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.
Seattle resident Jim Christie's work on environmental and property rights issues
has appeared in The American Enterprise, Chronicles, and Human Events.