Marijuana pain relief

June 30, 2007

Ted Holteen, Durango Herald (CO)

Durango prides itself on being a "green" city, but two local men think it could be greener.

Aamann Degarth and Eric Gay are spearheading an effort to open a local chapter of the Portland, Ore.-based The Hemp and Cannabis - or THC - Foundation, which advocates the use of medicinal marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized the practice.

In November 2000, Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 to the state constitution, legalizing the use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions, including AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, hepatitis, chronic pain and spastic disorders. But nearly seven years later, Degarth believes the controversial treatment remains a marginalized option in the medical community.

"There's no support system if you want to get medical marijuana and you go to a doctor," Degarth said. "It's a Catch-22 - they passed the law but good luck getting a doctor to prescribe it for you."

Degarth, 53, said he has been diagnosed with arthritis and chronic pain, but had to travel to Denver to find a physician who would prescribe marijuana for his condition. He now holds a license to possess marijuana from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Degarth says that many physicians refuse to prescribe marijuana for a number of reasons, but primarily because of what he calls an improper and lucrative relationship between the Amer-ican Medical Association and large pharmaceutical companies.

"It threatens their customer base, and money always talks, but it's not in the best interest of their patients," Degarth said. "They're not practicing the Hippocratic oath; they're practicing the 'hypocritic' oath."

Durango doctor doesn't prescribe

Durango ophthalmologist John Parkinson disputes Degarth's claim, and said his reasons for not prescribing marijuana are purely medical in nature. He treats hundreds of glaucoma patients, and said there are a number of topical eye drops and other medications that relieve pressure on the optic nerve, which is the cause of the eye disease.

"It is true that marijuana lowers intraocular pressure," Parkinson said. "The problem is, the side effects of the drug - being stoned - and the carcinogenic side effects make it unsuitable for long-term treatment of glaucoma in people who are looking at a normal life expectancy. Alcohol also lowers eye pressure, so it would be the same as prescribing alcohol to treat glaucoma and developing alcoholism."

Calls to several Durango oncologists, orthopedists and family practitioners by the Herald were not returned for this article, but Parkinson said he might feel differently about the issue if he treated more than ocular complaints.

"It drives me nuts when people come in and they want me to prescribe marijuana for glaucoma," Parkinson said, "but they ain't gonna get it from me. Now, if I was a cancer doctor and these people were dying, I'd figure, what have they got to lose, they're not going to get cancer and die, they've already got it."

Colorado allows for medical use

Gay, 22, whose condition is not terminal, suffers from severe migraine headaches and is allergic to many painkillers including ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin. Gay said he was denied a prescription for medical marijuana by three different physicians at the now-defunct Valley Wide Health Systems clinic in Durango and is filing lawsuits against all three. Like Degarth, Gay had to obtain a prescription from a Denver physician before the state would issue a permit to use or grow marijuana.

"I have not found anything that relieves my pain as effectively as cannabis," Gay said. "They (local doctors) gave me narcotics, which made me sick, and I don't want narcotics anyway because they're incredibly addictive. But this is about more than my case or any one situation. My main thing is to educate as many Colorado patients as possible so they know their rights."

Gay grows his marijuana in his Durango home and also supplies several other patients. The state permit allows a grower to supply legal patients with marijuana, but legality is a two-step process. A prescription from a physician without the state permit isn't enough to allow a grower such as Gay to provide marijuana to a patient or for the patient to use it.

Amendment 20 allows diagnosed patients to grow their own supply of marijuana or to designate a supplier who may only maintain enough supply for legally registered patients. The state law does not punish a patient for purchasing marijuana illegally on the black market, but the seller is criminally liable as he or she would be in any other drug distribution case.

The Wheat Ridge clinic

The THC Foundation operates clinics in Oregon, Hawaii, Washington and the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge. Each clinic is typically open for only a few days each month.

Executive Director Paul Stanford said patients must have a physician's documentation of a pre-existing and valid condition, fill out an extensive questionnaire, watch a video and receive a physical examination from an on-site doctor and nurse before the prescription recommendation is forwarded to the state authorities, who then issue the legal permit to grow or purchase marijuana.

Stanford said the Wheat Ridge clinic opened last June serving about 700 patients and now serves double that amount, and he expects the number to top 3,000 patients by year's end. He said between 60 percent and 70 percent of all patients who apply suffer from some form of chronic pain, and most are seeking the same alternative as Gay.

"They want off of the stuff like Oxycontin, morphine and those heavy drugs," Stanford said. "Cannabis is less debilitating, and it allows for a better quality of life."

State vs. federal law

District Attorney Craig Westberg said the efforts of Degarth and Gay will not draw the attention of local law enforcement in Durango or La Plata County, but cautioned the pair to proceed with care.

"As long as they adhere to the state laws, we have no reason to get involved at all. What the federal authorities do is another matter, but that's their matter," Westberg said.

The district attorney's words may prove prophetic, because regardless of what Colorado voters and legislators approved in 2000, the federal government does not recognize a state law that conflicts with federal law.

"The DEA's view on marijuana is, federally speaking, there is no such thing as medical marijuana, so if one opens a clinic like this anywhere in America, that clinic would be in violation of federal law, and anyone involved would be subject to federal prosecution," said Special Agent Mike Turner, the public-information officer for the Drug Enforcement Agency in the four-state Rocky Mountain Region.

Turner said the DEA's job is to seize contraband when its agents see it, although it is rare for federal agencies to be involved in cases of personal possession.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, confirmed that federal prosecutors' chief concern is with large-scale drug distribution organizations, but that doesn't mean his office would turn a blind eye to any illegal possession, regardless of documentation.

"Since the law passed, a handful of times during the course of an investigation we've come into contact with someone who had a medical marijuana card," Dorschner said. "Without exception, the marijuana is seized and destroyed as contraband, but whether we take it the next step and prosecute is on a case-by-case basis. We don't have the resources to put every case through the court system, but at the same time that doesn't mean we won't ever do it either."

Stanford said the THC Foundation has advocated on behalf of a handful of marijuana growers in California who have been charged by federal authorities for distribution of a controlled substance, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled decisively on the issue.

He said Colorado is the only state that included the provision in its constitution, which he said strengthens the case for those charged in Colorado. Stanford said he will visit Durango in the coming weeks to meet with Degarth and Gay and hopes to have a local clinic up and running by August or September.



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