Procuring medical marijuana difficult

March 22, 2004

Kirsten Searer , Las Vegas Sun

John Powell admits that he's not very good at growing marijuana.

He tried it in his garage, but the plant withered. He tried it in his closet, but he said illuminating the plants 'just runs the electric bill out of whack.'

So Powell, a multiple sclerosis patient who legally can use the drug under the state's medical marijuana program, turned to Pierre Werner.

Werner operates Primary Caregivers and Consultants, a company that helps severely ill people fill out paperwork, find a doctor and grow the marijuana they need. In some cases, he has grown the drug for patients and sold it to them for about $100 an ounce.

He has been operating the business from his home, but last week went before Clark County commissioners to ask for a business license so he could open an office.

They turned him down -- the county doesn't have a business license it could assign to a business that would consult about how to obtain marijuana, county spokeswoman Samantha Charles said.

'It just doesn't exist,' she said.

Werner said he'll continue to operate his consulting business, even if he has to continue doing it from his home. As someone who uses medical marijuana through the state's medical marijuana program -- he has a bipolar disorder -- Werner said he understands how difficult it is for people to legally obtain marijuana.

'I don't know how it could be illegal for me to verify someone's ID and their condition and say, 'Yes, that's correct. Now I can take you to this doctor to help you,' ' Werner said.

Werner isn't the only one hoping to enter the business. Bill Kosinski, who uses marijuana to treat a back injury he suffered in a car accident, said he decided to consult patients looking for marijuana after he had trouble registering for the state's medical marijuana program.

Kosinski plans to quit his full-time job as a financial consultant to run his new company, Medical Marijuana Consultants of Nevada.

He recently ran a newspaper ad and has been getting at least two calls a day from potential clients looking to ease pain, calm their bodies or increase their appetite, he said.

'The youngest person I've had call me so far was about 26,' Kosinski said. 'She was an HIV positive person who's taking a lot of medication that causes nausea.

'I've also had people who are 58 who are suffering from back problems and arthritis. And they have constant pain. They won't use the Internet, so how are they going to find out information about it?'

Kosinski applied last week for a business license through Clark County, but he has not yet heard back from county officials.

About 350 patients have enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program since it began in 2001, program manager Jennifer Bartlett said. About 170 Nevada doctors have signed papers allowing their patients to use medical marijuana, she said.

But Nevada simply gives patients permission to grow up to seven marijuana plants. The state doesn't tell them how to obtain the plants or seeds, Bartlett said.

'They have to buy their seeds or plants,' Bartlett said.

That's because federal law still prohibits the growing of marijuana. In Nevada lawmakers wanted to avoid the problems that occurred in California, where federal agents raided cannabis clubs frequented by medical marijuana patients.

'It can be hard to get established, but we're a state department, and we have to comply with certain federal laws, too,' Bartlett said. 'And everyone knows that drugs are against federal law.'

A new initiative that would allow all adults to legally purchase up to one ounce of marijuana from smoke shops would help medical marijuana patients, said Jennifer Knight, communications director for the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, which is pushing the initiative.

'It will provide low-cost medical marijuana to patients,' she said. 'Right now, it's sort of like giving somebody a car without the keys to drive it. Obviously it's legal for them to possess it, but how do they get a hold of it without having to turn to illegal sources?'

In 2002 voters soundly defeated a measure to allow up to three ounces of legal marijuana. Just 39 percent of voters supported it.

While it would be illegal for a business to grow marijuana for patients, the state can't stop businesses from consulting patients on how to enroll in the state's program, Bartlett said.

Still, she said, only the Agriculture Department has the authority to disperse the documents patients must fill out, she said.

'I can't stop Pierre from consulting people,' Bartlett said. 'That's his own prerogative. But he cannot grow for other people.'

Werner has been intent on proving that he can grow for others. During the interview process for his application, Werner told county officials that he planned to grow marijuana for his clients.

'Business License (employees) spoke with Mr. Werner and he expressed his desire to grow additional plants and distribute them,' a document presented to the County Commission stated.

And on Jan. 17, police raided Werner's Las Vegas home, finding 27 marijuana plants. They came after Werner's neighbors called 911, saying that he was standing outside his house holding a marijuana plant.

'I wanted to see if police would respect my rights and not go into my house,' he said. 'And they didn't.'

He is now charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute it. He said he is pleading innocent and has a court hearing on Thursday.

Even now, Werner said, he has 14 marijuana plants -- seven for himself and another seven for a man who has cancer and cannot grow them for himself.

'Some of them, they don't know how to do it,' Werner said. 'If you can't move half your body, you can't grow. You can't do anything, really.'

Both Werner and Kosinski said they are out to help people who are too ill to grow the drug and wary of buying it off the street.

'There are people dying out there without their medical marijuana,' Werner said. 'Seriously, people that can't eat.'

Kosinski said he applied for a business license so he could rent office space. He could help patients get permission to use marijuana and, potentially, run classes so they can learn how to grow the plant.

Some clients obtain seeds from the Internet; others could buy a bag of drugs off the black market and use leftover seeds in the bag to grow the plant, he said.

Powell said he has bought marijuana off the street for up to $400 an ounce to calm the spasms in his leg and increase his appetite. It was a high-quality drug, he said, but he prefers not to go that route.

'I don't like going around asking strange people, asking them around the street,' he said. 'They'll just take your money and shoot you.'

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