A MARIJUANA SALESMAN SEEMS TO LOSE ANOTHER ROUND
Naaldwijk, The Netherlands -- James R. Burton, who once served a year in
federal prison, still gets a kick out of the signs at his marijuana
plantation here reminding employees whom to call in the event of an
emergency: the Dutch police.
Sixteen years ago, Mr. Burton did time in the maximum security jail in
Marion, Ill., and lost his family farm in Bowling Green, Ky., after being
caught with an estimated $112,000 worth of marijuana that he said he needed
to stave off glaucoma. Last year, the Dutch government gave him a five-year
contract to grow more than 10 times that much.
Mr. Burton, 56, seemed the perfect candidate to supply a medical cannabis
program, through which terminally ill patients and sufferers of chronic
pain can buy doctor-prescribed marijuana at local pharmacies. For one
thing, he has had plenty of on-the-job training, having grown and smoked
pot every day for most of the last 35 years.
"He's qualified to grow marijuana, I can tell you that," said Eddie Railey,
a Kentucky state police investigator at the time of Mr. Burton's arrest.
"He's good at it."
Even his one-year stretch behind bars was not a total waste, Mr. Burton
said, because he got a grounding in the high-security techniques needed to
guard a government-sponsored cannabis crop. "It's better guarded than the
bank here," Mr. Burton said proudly.
Dressed in a lab technician's white coat, his ponytail barely visible, Mr.
Burton nurses a deadly serious devotion to a plant that makes others simply
One of only two growers chosen for the medical cannabis program, Mr. Burton
was sure he had found nirvana in the Netherlands, a place to fulfill his
dream of establishing marijuana as a valid medical treatment. But his
euphoria has been short-lived. The Dutch program's first anniversary is in
September and Mr. Burton and health officials are clashing over what to
charge for cannabis, how to test it and even how many varieties to sell.
"Everything I have ever worked for is going down the tubes," he said.
Mr. Burton says government regulations like testing and packaging are
ruining his business. His medical marijuana, which is radiated to remove
bacteria, sells at a drugstore for about $11.50 a gram; local cafes often
charge less than half that, so many patients understandably choose to go
"The government here is sticking its neck out on this project, and t
whole world is watching," Mr. Burton said. "Unfortunately, they have made
some misjudgments and miscalculations."
But if Mr. Burton's mission to make pot the world's next wonder drug has
already cost him his home and his freedom in the United States, his
mouthing off on marijuana's behalf seems likely to result in the loss of
his government contract, particularly because, in the government's view, it
violates a confidentiality agreement. At the very least, his recent
appearance on a national television network here lambasting the medical
cannabis program - sprinkled with threats of a lawsuit against the
government - has exasperated officials.
"Certainly there are problems, but it's not a flop," said Willem Scholten,
director of the Dutch Office of Medicinal Cannabis. "It's too early to make
such a judgment."
MR. Burton has not seen eye to eye with the powers that be since he went to
jail in 1988, after a federal jury ruled that growing marijuana at his farm
was a crime in spite of his claims that he needed it to ward off glaucoma.
He has stuck to that defense, convinced that three joints a day - he
prefers the term cigarettes - have staved off a form of the eye disease
that afflicts some members of his family.
"One of the reasons I have such great passion for it is because it did save
my eyesight," Mr. Burton said. "I have met tens of thousands of people who
marijuana does work for."
For more than three decades, Mr. Burton has followed the same medical
regimen: "I smoke first thing when I get up in the morning, I then smoke
usually in the afternoon and then I smoke before I go to bed."
Mr. Burton's life story may be unusual, but he himself doesn't always have
a clear recollection of it. He seems at times scattered and frazzled,
mixing up words, phrases and even facts, including those about his medical
More than once, he has told reporters that his two brothers "were totally
blind" from glaucoma, but his brothers say that only one of them has
glaucoma and that both can see just fine as long as they wear glasses.
After his release from prison, Mr. Burton decided that he had little choice
but to leave the United States. His criminal case had attracted enough
media attention to make him an undesirable, even among drug dealers.
"I was homeless, I didn't have any money, I couldn't get a job," he
recalled. "I really couldn't get any marijuana anymore because when I
called up and said, 'This is James Burton,' all of the dealers hung up."
So he moved to the Netherlands, where he could buy and smoke pot carefree.
In time, Mr. Burton started distributing marijuana to Dutch patients, which
was technically illegal but tolerated. Business boomed, and in 1993 he
opened up SIMM, the Dutch acronym of his Institute of Medical Marijuana.
Three years ago, the Dutch government put out a call for medical cannabis
growers. With his long experience in the field, Mr. Burton easily met the
requirements, including delivery of cannabis of a consistent quality during
three separate trial runs. In fact, he can grow 134 different varieties,
slice it, dice it and package it tastefully in a joint, a tea bag, even a
cup of chocolate milk.
Medical marijuana has to be certifiably free of pesticides and bacteria,
and have a moderate dosage of the compound THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol,
which is what causes people to get high but has limited therapeutic value.
"A woman in critical condition," said Mr. Burton, "doesn't want to get
high. She wants to use it so she can deal with chemotherapy."
The plants are harvested after a few months and stripped of all of their
leaves, with only the bud left for the pharmacist. "That's the real
medicine," Mr. Burton said.
His medical cannabis is sold under the bland brand name SIMM. "You can't
have at the pharmacy 'White Nightmare' or 'AK-47,' " he said. "The doctor
can't prescribe those kinds of names. You have to have medical terms."
Mr. Burton enjoys a loyal following among his customers, many of whom are
in the last stages of their lives with cancer or AIDS. They often call him
Dr. Burton, even though he has little more than a high-school education. He
is less revered by Dutch officials, who recently announced that they would
not renew his contract beyond next year.
For the second time in less than 20 years, therefore, Mr. Burton faces the
prospect of losing his home or his business, or both. What he still has is
his faith in marijuana as a medicine.
"I will definitely go on some way, somehow, to help patients get good
marijuana at a good price," he said.