Compassion, controversy bloom for couple growing medical marijuana

July 05, 2004

Brian D. Crecente, Rocky Mountain News

It's dusk, and a fine rain is falling on Thomas Lawrence as he works the earth behind his Park Hill home. Standing next to a mound of upturned dirt, Lawrence talks of bat guano, coconut husks and guard dogs. 'I've got big dogs, a fence, a security system,' he said, ticking off the security measures he has in place to keep people out of his garden.

Lawrence said he hopes the rottweiler and German shepherd that stalk his yard will deter anyone from raiding his garden - a greenhouse of marijuana plants grown for people licensed by the state to smoke the herb for their health.

Standing just under 6 feet tall with pale blue eyes, a bushy head of hair and a neatly trimmed soul patch on his chin, Lawrence is a backyard pharmacist - the unintentional byproduct of a state law that allows some to use marijuana as medicine but makes scant provisions for buying or growing it.

Thomas and Larisa Lawrence are two of seven marijuana growers licensed by the state as 'caregivers,' authorized to provide marijuana to more than one person.

On the fringes of the law

The state has licensed 373 people to use marijuana to relieve their pain, to overcome their inability to eat or to ease other symptoms. The state makes no effort to monitor where they get it.

Being a caregiver isn't a job, it's more of a calling, as Larisa Lawrence, Thomas Lawrence's wife, describes it.

There is little that would entice a person to grow medicinal marijuana; it's unprofitable, draws the ire of the law and can cost friendships and break apart families, the Lawrences said.

'There's no income,' Thomas Lawrence said. 'I don't use this to make money. My wife works, I work.'

And half of Lawrence's patients don't reimburse him for the expense, he says.

'I haven't paid rent on time since I've been at this house,' he said.

Thomas Lawrence splits his days remodeling houses and his evenings mothering his plants and delivering marijuana.

'Sometimes I don't go back to bed until one in the morning because I'm out delivering,' he said.

Larisa Lawrence and her husband say they decided to grow marijuana out of compassion for others.

'Thomas and I are very caring people. We don't have any children. We have both seen a lot of pain and suffering. We have both seen neglect,' she said. 'We are just compassionate people, and for some reason that's wrong today.'

Although state law allows a patient to name a 'primary caregiver' to provide marijuana, it doesn't explain how caregivers can do it and remain within the law.

So the Lawrences operate on the fringes of the law, growing marijuana for people licensed to smoke the drug, but often straying beyond the limits of the law.

The law authorizes the use of marijuana to alleviate certain debilitating medical conditions, but limits the amount a licensed person or their caregiver can possess to no more than 2 ounces of usable marijuana and not more than six marijuana plants, with three or fewer being mature.

Breeding a better bud 

State and federal officers raided Lawrence's home June 1.

They found 84 marijuana plants and five pounds of bagged marijuana in the basement - far more than the law allows for their six licensed patients.

Lawrence was issued a citation under state law. Federal charges are pending.

The bust only confirms the obvious: that Lawrence and other growers have planted themselves at ground zero of a national legal conflict.

Nine states have legalized medical marijuana but federal law makes no such provision.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed recently to hear federal prosecutors' appeal in a California case, which could settle the issue in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Thomas Lawrence argues that he provides marijuana to 40 patients, many of them not licensed, and that they depend on him.

Down in the cool of a darkened brick basement, Lawrence shows where he used to grow his plants. Now there are just the remnants of a raid: empty pots, splashes of black dirt, an odd, heavy smell.

Thomas is now growing plants outside in a makeshift greenhouse he said he hopes won't be raided by neighborhood kids.

In another room, behind a bolted door, is a back closet lighted by a hanging lamp and filled by a single table. On it sit several trays of wispy seedlings - each in its own container.

Lawrence points as he names them:

'White lightning, Bubble gum, Purple Indigo, Jack Career, Shiskaberry, Dutch treat.'

These are his genetic lines, varieties of marijuana plants that he crossbreeds to bring out different characteristics of the drug. Some will make you hungrier, he says, some do a better job of dulling pain, none are wasted smoke.

But Lawrence never calls the plants marijuana. It's always 'medicine.'

And it's medicine that brought a 63-year-old man from Grand County to Lawrence's door on a recent June night.

The man, who is licensed to smoke marijuana to help alleviate the pain he feels from a spinal disorder, asked that his name not be used because he doesn't want friends or neighbors to know he smokes marijuana.

'For five years, I shot morphine four times a day and it did nothing,' he said. 'I have taken OxyContin by the handfuls. They are just jelly beans to me - they do nothing.'

Marijuana helped relax the muscles in his back, easing the pain, he says, but he had no idea how to grow marijuana or where to buy it.

'It was like you are standing out in the middle of the desert and see nothing and have no idea which direction to go,' he said. 'The frustration was beyond description.'

Then he found Thomas Lawrence after reading about his bust in a local newspaper.

The house is full of talk and television. The Man in the Iron Mask is playing on the flatscreen under the front window and the Grand County man is talking about a new way of ingesting marijuana without actually smoking it.

Larisa Lawrence and the man's wife sit on the couch commiserating about her husband's medical problems.

Preparing a bong

At the kitchen table, Thomas Lawrence is methodically packing a two-foot bong with some of his homegrown medicine.

Her husband isn't licensed to smoke pot, but he should be, Larisa Lawrence said.

'He's missing a disc in his tailbone - it's shattered,' she said. 'He's only 30 years old and without marijuana he's relegated to walking like an 80-year-old. Sometimes he comes home from work and goes to the bathroom to vomit from the pain.'

The Lawrences don't think the state should be able to decide who can and can't smoke for medical reasons.

'We all fought the civil rights battle,' Larisa Lawrence said. 'Now, we need to fight the human rights battle.'

Her conversation is interrupted by a stream of painful, barking coughs.

Thomas Lawrence walks from the room, coughing uncontrollably - bong in hand.

A few minutes later he walks back in and hoists a second, small clay bong packed with marijuana to the 63-year-old man.

'Want a hit?'

Medical marijuana in Colorado

Eight medical conditions qualify patients for marijuana use in Colorado. Here are the conditions and number of current patients with marijuana permits:

Cachexia (a weight loss condition)......26
Muscle spasms......157
Severe pain......256
Severe nausea......81

Source: Colorado Department Of Public Health And Environment

Countywide look at medical marijuana use in state

Forty counties in Colorado have patients registered for legal marijuana use. Of those who've applied to use marijuana, here is the percentage of those who've been approved in selected counties. 

El Paso   15
Jefferson   11
Denver   11
Arapahoe   6 
Boulder   5
Huerfano   4
Larimer   4 
Teller   4
Pueblo   3
Mesa   3 
Fremont   3
Adams   3
Delta   3

Source: Colorado Department Of Public Health And Environment

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