The gray area on medical greenery

May 25, 2005

Reid Williams, Vail Daily

SUMMIT COUNTY - Dave Schreiner was a church deacon and Boy Scout leader in Ohio for 25 years before moving to Summit County in 1999. Now, what occupies his mind - besides his wife, children, bills and the typical family travails - is growing marijuana. Born with congenital defects in both femurs, Schreiner has been addled by pain since his teenage years. He has spent month-long stints in the hospital in full-body casts. He has endured more than 20 surgeries, leaving more than a dozen rods, plates and pins affixed to and drilled into his bones.

He even broke both femurs while in physical therapy. A lifetime of weak legs has also thrown his back out of alignment, requiring more doctors. And six years ago, he suffered a heart attack.

'I'm in constant pain, all the time,' Schreiner said. 'The surgeries are trauma.'

The list of medications doctors prescribe to deal with the pain - and the conditions of which the pain is a symptom - is long and expensive. It includes slow-release morphine pills, the narcotic Oxycontin, epidurals and more. Some might question Schreiner's need for marijuana given his regimen of intoxicants, but he explains, 'They make me sick if I don't smoke.'

So, three years ago, he got his first medical marijuana card. Lacking space in their Summit Cove home, Schreiner's growing operation took root in the living room. He didn't like it, he says, as his older children couldn't bring friends over and he had to lie to his younger kids' friends and say they were tomato plants.

There was no fooling adults, though, and Summit County's Drug Task Force soon received a tip about 'grow lights' glowing in the living room of Schreiner's house. It was a spring night, just over a year ago, as the Schreiner family was sitting down to dinner, when there came a knock at the door. Schreiner knew the officer - their children attended school together - and was shocked when presented with a search warrant.

'They all had big guns,' Schreiner said. 'They said they got a search warrant based on the color of the high-pressure sodium lights they could see from the street. They pulled us out on the deck. I showed them my card right away. I thought they should have stopped right there, but they searched through the house anyway.'

Schreiner's wife gave the task force a copy of Colorado's medical marijuana law. The officers retreated to confer with lawyers and the court. In the end, the Drug Task Force left after filming and recording Schreiner's apparatus and plants.

'It was kind of odd leaving there empty-handed,' Sheriff John Minor would later say. 'We'd never encountered that situation before, and we really didn't know what to do.'

To put it lightly, the intrusion irked Schreiner and his family. The neighborhood was talking about it, and the Schreiners worried about their children having to deal with it. His medical history, once confidential, now had to be offered as explanation and excuse. He feels the whole ordeal was unnecessary.

The Schreiners moved to Lake County within a few months. They found a bigger house - plenty of room for the kids, without having to play around dad's growing operation - and felt relatively anonymous. But Leadville police came knocking at the door a month later, showing their search warrant, looking for a drug dealer. Again, the Schreiners showed the medical marijuana card and a copy of the law.



'Doug'

Let's call this guy 'Doug.' Even though the state has given him the legal approval to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons, he's still not comfortable putting his name into the public domain. And when he's not afraid, he's just angry.


Doug used to be an airplane pilot, until the doctors diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis. As the disease has progressed, his employment opportunities have degraded, as his balance, overall wellness and vision have deteriorated. When his 'attacks' are bad, for example, he goes blind in his left eye.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder. The body, in biochemical confusion, attacks itself, mistaking healthy tissue and systems for foreign invaders. Doug's recent attacks have affected the protective coating surrounding his left optic nerve.

The thing that seems to work best in fighting the attacks, the tremors and the rest is not twice-weekly Avonex injections prescribed by his doctor; nor is it the other federally approved medications. The natural stuff works the best, Doug says.

He keeps to a painstaking diet, heavy on natural foods and gluten-free products. He doesn't drink or use tobacco. The injections help maintain his immune system, but he'll 'turn to pot before anything the FDA has approved.' He tries to stay even-keeled, as stress is the likeliest trigger for an attack.

It doesn't always work. He's getting divorced. He gets agitated thinking about all the money his parents must spend to support him, when all he wants is to be a productive man.

So he sits in Summit Cove, watching History Channel documentaries, with all day to think, but trying not to think because that's what starts the buzzing in his nervous system, wondering as he packs his marijuana pipe if this is the time when his vision in that left eye won't return.

Doug has watched over the past year as local law enforcement agencies have made headlines. It's the raids that scare him: Police holding a family at gun-point over a stolen car they had nothing to do with; a Frisco couple's home ransacked in a fruitless search for a meth lab; and marijuana growing operations seized.


Unable to take the stress and the uncertainty anymore, Doug went to law enforcement himself. Doug called the sheriff, told him what he'd find at his house and asked him point-blank if he had anything to worry about.

'They said they wouldn't be coming to my house,' Doug said. 'But I'm not sure I believe them.'



Limits to the law

Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in November 2000, becoming one of 10 states in the country with some sort of law on the books allowing use of the illegal substance.

Colorado's Amendment 20 created a medical marijuana registry program, administered by the Department of Public Health and Environment. Under the law, adults and minors can apply to be put on the registry with approvals from physicians who concur that the patient suffers from a debilitating condition - such cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, spasms, seizures and chronic pain, among others - and that marijuana would provide the patient some relief.

The law says patients with a valid medical marijuana card can possess up to two ounces of a usable form of marijuana and the paraphernalia to use it. The patient can grow a total of six marijuana plants, three or less of which can be flowering. Caregivers, who go through a similar approval process and are listed on the card, are permitted to possess, obtain and grow for patients, as well.

What the law does not provide, however, is any knowledge about how to grow marijuana, advice or explanation on how to obtain it if not growing it, or the names of any people who could help with that. There is no information about whether different strands of the plant work better for different health conditions.


Abd between the time it takes to grow a plant to maturity and the difficulty in nurturing plants in a mountain environment, a card-holder who grows the legal six plants might not get them all to produce sufficient quantities of marijuana.

In an ongoing case that began in Rifle, a judge is weighing charges against a woman whose home was raided by the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team. Officers seized 131 marijuana plants. Her caregiver status allowed her to have up to 30 plants, and the woman claims that only 20 of the plants were viable.

Despite provisions in the medical marijuana law that order law enforcement agencies to wait for a judge's decision when medical marijuana plants are seized, the drug enforcement team destroyed most of the plants.

The task force commander and an officer admitted under oath in court proceedings in Glenwood Springs that they knew they were violating the law, but that putting the plants in evidence storage to rot posed a health hazard.

'This is very difficult for us,' said Minor, the sheriff. 'It's something we're still trying to understand.'



Involuntary advocate


Federal agents might come looking for Dave Schreiner, and he's afraid of that, but he can't stand idly by anymore. He knows there are other people out there like himself - in pain, in fear and running out of time - and they shouldn't have to be. So he's starting a support group.

Schreiner says people with disabilities and health conditions need support from their peers. Such a group would give them a chance to vent, share stories and learn about new treatments or medicines. There's also a shortage of information about the different medicinal properties of various strands of marijuana, he says.

It's an idea that's already piquing the interest of card-holders.

'It's a good idea, especially up there,' says Ben, who's forming a group of fellow veterans in Boulder to push for legalizing growing marijuana. 'People need to coalesce and educate the community. Otherwise, the cops will just keep busting people and let the courts sort it out.'

Schreiner said he wishes he didn't have to do this.

'There has to be a reason why I spent all this time in church, in Scouts, a reason why I'm going through all this pain,' he said. 'The reason is because I'm supposed to bridge the gap. I'm not going to hide anymore. This is my quest.'


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