Legal relief

July 08, 2006

Martin Kidston, Helena Independent Record (MT)

Roy Kemp keeps a freestanding computer locked away in his office. It’s not connected to any outside network, server or telephone line. Only he knows the names written on its hard drive.

Names like Ed, a man who suffers from Hepetitis C, a painful disease of the liver. And Richard, a husband who grows marijuana for his ailing wife and two other patients.

While Ed, Richard and Mr. Kemp each lead different lives in different corners of the state, they’re all linked by that single computer — a lone database that tracks anyone registered in Montana’s medical marijuana program.

There are more than 305 names inside that computer. They represent patients, doctors and caregivers who, in some way, believe marijuana can ease the pain of the sick and dying.

“Montana’s registry is healthy,” said Kemp, the licensing bureau chief for the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “My job is to keep that registry. I have no thoughts on whether the state’s program is appropriate or not. The program is the law and the law is very prescriptive.”

Sixty-two percent of Montana voters approved the state’s medical marijuana law two years ago. Eleven states now have similar laws, including Nevada, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

In Montana, 220 patients are currently registered to use marijuana. That’s up from 206 patients one month ago and 119 patients one year ago. Montana also has 100 physicians in that database; doctors who have recommended marijuana to a patient.

Kemp doesn’t see the numbers as being high, not for a program approaching its second anniversary. When figured per capita, he said, the number of registered patients, caregivers and doctors in Montana remains on a par with states like Colorado, Alaska and Nevada.

“Montana is relatively close to following the trends,” Kemp said. “We’re only a couple of numbers off from our initial projections.”

The steady increase in patients doesn’t surprise Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that aims to reduce the harm associated with marijuana by regulating it in a manner similar to alcohol.

Mirken believes the public is growing more comfortable with the program and physicians are more willing to recommend a patient for medical pot.

He cited a national Gallup poll released in November that found 78 percent of voters favored allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana “to reduce pain and suffering.” He also pointed out that Montana reduced its registration fee from $100 to $50; a step he believes will compel more patients to sign up for the program.

“We’re talking about people with chronic and debilitating conditions who are on limited incomes,” Mirken said. “For them, $100 bucks is a lot of money. It could mean chosing between buying grocieries or paying the registration fee to help deal with their pain.”

Despite the program’s successes, some registered patients and caregivers would like what they see as shortcomings within the law addressed, including a larger possession limit and help for patients finding marijuana.

Under Montana law, a registered patient or caregiver can grow six marijuana plants or possess one ounce of usable pot. The state isn’t permitted to give referrals on where to obtain that marijuana, or where to buy the seeds to grow it.

“Where an individual obtains marijuana or how — I have no idea,” Kemp said.

That’s a problem for Ed, who admits to buying marijuana off the street from time to time for lack of other options.

He’s tried growing his own plants — two of them — but the grow-light inflated his power bill to the point that he couldn’t afford to pay it on his limited imcome.

“It doesn’t bother me — pot is pretty easy to get,” Ed said. “People just give it to me. They give me a bud or two here and there and that’ll last me two weeks.”

Ed described the pain from his disease as unbearable; an ache thoughout his body. Some days are worse — days he finds it hard to get out of bed.

The CDC estimates that nearly 30 percent of patients with chronic Hepetitis C will eventually face life-threatening conditions. Ed is aware of that statistic and because of it, he wants the government to decriminalize marijuana for medical patients and make it easier to buy.

“Marijuana is a good thing,” said Ed. “I feel like it takes away my pain and suffering. If I’m going to die and go out of this world, at least I’m not going to go out in pain.”

Ed isn’t the only one who would like aspects of the law changed.

Richard is one of Montana’s 87 registered caregivers, a title that allows him to grow marijuana for patients who sign up with the state, including his wife, who has multiple sclerosis.

The drug saves patients from the lingering effects of heavy narcotics, Richard said. When his wife uses the drug, she doesn’t need other medications to control her discomfort.

“Without the program there would be a lot more suffering,” Richard said. “A lot of people go off their pain medications because of it.”

Yet Richard believes the six-plant limit is too small. Half the marijuana seeds he sows yield male plants which are worthless and must be destroyed. What’s more, he said, a healthy female plant can produce more pot than the state’s one-ounce limit.

Richard equates that to growing a fine tomato plant dripping with fruit, and then being told he can keep just one tomato. The marijuana he’s not permitted to keep could go to a pain patient who needs it, he said.

“You have to start with 12 seeds just to end up with six female plants, and that’s illegal right there,” he said. “And if you’re growing outdoors, six plants can produce quite a bit of pot.”

A single, well-tended plant can yield nearly a pound of marijuana. That sounds like a lot, Richard said, but some patients smoke two to three ounces every month, depending on their condition and level of pain.

One of Richard’s recent patients, a 19-year-old girl who ultimately died of bone cancer, relied on marijuana to control her pain, supress her nausea and stimulate her appetite. Another one of his patients smokes the drug to combat the discomfort associated with his bi-polar disorder.

“I have one patient with multiple sclersis who smokes two ounces a month, every single month, like clockwork,” said Richard. “She would probably smoke three ounces a month, but I don’t have enough to give her.”

Richard grew marijuana in Oregon before moving to Montana. It took him years to learn to cultivate the plant, which he first started growing for his wife.

A single marijuana plant takes more than 120 days to mature. About 45 days into the growing process, he manipulates the light into 12-hour cycles, prompting the plants to flower.

At harvest, he dries the product in a darkened room with 50-percent humity. The product is finally cured in a glass jar for three weeks to ensure it’s completely dry.

“Mold is bad, especially for a cancer patient or an AIDS patient who’s subject to infection,” Richard said. “When it’s all done, there are no seeds and very few stems.”

The tri-combs, or little hairs on the flower, remain intact. It’s those little hairs that contain the THC, the active drug in marijuana. Richard said each strain of marijuana plant affects his patients differently.

“I have one patient who likes a sativa-indica blend,” he said. “Indica is used mostly for pain, but it has a tendancy to put you on the couch.”

The indica strain numbs the patient to the point of inactivity, he said. For an MS patient who needs to exercise, a pure indica strain isn’t the best remedy. Blending indica with a sativa strain masks the pain while allowing the patient to remain active.

“With sativa, you want to get out more. You want to walk around. You want to talk and be social,” he said. “With indica, you’d rather sit there and do nothing at all.”

State law doesn’t allow doctors to “prescribe” marijuana.

Like ecstasy or heroin, Kemp explained, marijuana is classified as a schedule-one drug by the federal government. In contrast, morphine and other pain killers are schedule-two drugs that can be prescribed by doctors.

“It’s not possible for anyone, licensed or not, to prescribe a schedule-one drug,” Kemp said. “Doctors must recommend to me that their patient will benefit from using marijuana, and I put their patient and the physician into my database.”

Of the 220 registered patients in Montana’s marijuana program, 80 suffer from “severe or chronic pain.” It’s the most patients in any one category, followed by “chronic pain and muscle spasms” and, thirdly, “cancer, glaucoma or AIDS.”

Shortly after Montana passed its medical marijuana law, Ed tried the drug with a registered patient. The patient spoke highly of its ability to mask his pain. After trying it for himself, Ed agreed.

“I’ve been smoking it for about a year now and it’s taken away all my body pain,” he said. “It helps me get up and it gets me motivated. My liver functions are back to normal and my enzyme levels haven’t skyrocketed.”

Past doctors had prescribed painkillers like hydrocodone and soma. But with his addictive personality, Ed said, he found himself abusing the prescription. When he asked his doctor about the medical marijuana program, the doctor, whose name is protected by law, “was all for it,” according to Ed.

“I told him I had to be legal in all that I did,” said Ed. “He said, ‘Whatever you think.’ He signed the paperwork for me. It wasn’t a problem at all.”

An amendment to a federal law that would have stopped the Justic Department from arresting patents in the 11 states allowing medical marijauna failed to pass the House last week by a 163-259 vote.

While the amenment was shot down, it received two more supporting votes than the year before. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman, favored the amendment.

“Montana voters passed a medical marijuana law,” said Todd Shriver, a Rehberg spokesman. “He believes that folks in Montana should be able to make decisions for themselves.”

The day Richard put his plants out to grow last year, the area’s drug task force was there to count them. He was within the limit.

“They were cordial and nice about it,” he said. “The only issue is with the federal folks. That kind of scares me.”

Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said that while the recent House vote killed the amendment, it received more ‘yes’ votes than ever before.

The amendment’s strong showing, he believes, was due to growing conservative support for a change in the law.

“The most significant thing is that the amendment gained votes during an election year,” Kampia said. “It’s also worth noting that every member of Congress who has voted for medical marijuana legislation and run for reelection has won reelection.”

The push for change by advocates may not come soon enough for Richard, who would like to see Montana establish a registry where legal patients can find legal caregivers to supply them with legal pot. He’d also like to see “cannibis buyers clubs” in Montana, like those dispensories appearing in California.

“That would be a good thing,” Richard said. “I’ve talked with people about dispensories as well, where people with the proper ID could get marijuana for medical uses. It would help a lot of people out.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 447-4086, or at mkidston@helenair.com

 



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