Medical marijuana is exploding in Oregon.
There are 33,000 people who hold medical marijuana cards in the state, and there are so many new people applying for them that it’s creating a backlog.
I wanted to know if all these people really need treatment with marijuana and how easy it is to get a medical marijuana card. So I went undercover to find out.
My quest to get a card began with a visit to a local medical marijuana clinic. As I approached the clinic, I was greeted by a man on a smoke break. He proceeded to review my medical records right on the sidewalk with his cigarette in his mouth.
He said, “These look good.” He put out his cigarette and told me to follow him inside.
Once inside I’m given paperwork to fill out, my medical records are copied, and I’m told to return for an appointment at 5:04 p.m. the next Monday.
When I returned for my appointment, I was met by the same greeter. He took my $200 fee and issued me a handwritten receipt because the credit card machine wouldn’t print one.
Then I waited.
Other patients arrived and then still more. For almost 45 minutes we waited and were told the doctor was late returning from lunch (at nearly six in the evening).
Finally, the doctor returned, and I’m seen for no more than 10 minutes.
He looked at my medical records which reflect two appointments with my primary care physician for pain within the last three years. Two appointments at least 90 days apart is one requirement to obtain a medical marijuana card.
Severe pain happens to be the number one condition people give when they apply for a medical marijuana card. Of the 33,000 patients currently holding cards, 29,500 stated severe pain as their ailment. Persistent muscle spasms (7,843) and nausea (4,849) followed as a distant second and third, and then cancer (1,294), seizures (891), cachexia (660), HIV/AIDS (575) and glaucoma (509).
When I applied for the card, I did not make up any medical issues. My neck and back pain relate to three car accidents of which I was not at fault and scoliosis - a curvature of my spine.
They’re conditions charted in my medical records by my doctor and for which I’ve fairly successfully treated over the years with massage therapy but not with marijuana.
But my conditions are enough for the doctor to sign off on my card saying, on the document I would have to turn into the state to receive my card, that not only do I qualify (which is crossed off) but I would benefit from medical marijuana.
BUSINESS IS BOOMING
Business is booming for medical marijuana clinics. Paul Stanford founded the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation which has medical marijuana clinics in nine states including Oregon and Washington. He does not run the clinic I visited.
“This year we should top $5 million,” he said.
He showed me his records room where he said 110,000 medical files reside.
He acknowledged there is corruption with medical marijuana but at every level, including the disproportionate number of patients who claim severe pain as their ailment.
“Well, I think there might be some people who are using it just to get medical marijuana, but I think, especially in our clinics, the patients actually have these conditions,” he said.
At Stanford’s clinics, medical records for each patient are reviewed before they can even see the doctor. He showed me a stack of records that consists of people who didn’t make the cut.
Still, Stanford’s Southeast Portland location features Dr. Sandra Comacho-Otero, who authorized 8,760 medical marijuana cards in the past year which is far and above any other doctor in the state.
“We try to provide that door for them to be able to use it without any legal issues,” said Comacho-Otero.
Sgt. Michael Iwai, a drug recognition expert with the Oregon State Police said that “year after year after year, cannabis is by far the number one controlled substance that comes back through toxicology.”
He said from a law enforcement perspective, a medical marijuana card isn’t a get out of jail free card for impaired drivers.
“They also feel that in their own minds, mentally speaking, it’s OK: That there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s that attitude,” he said.
MEANWHILE . . .
As I left the clinic with paperwork to get my medical marijuana card in hand, the receptionist came outside and told me he’s willing to connect me with a grower.
Then a man dressed in camo ran after me and said he overheard my conversation about needing a grower. He handed me a sample of his product so that I can “start smoking weed today.”
He offered to provide me up to three pounds of marijuana a year.
I told him we’d be in touch.
To physically get a card, I would have to pay another $100 processing fee to the state of Oregon and turn in my paperwork.
In case you’re wondering: I disposed of the marijuana responsibly.
WEB EXCLUSIVE STORY
Portland, Ore. - At the Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA) clinic in Southeast Portland, Sandee Burbank relieved her arthritic hands with a dose of medical marijuana using an ointment she made herself from cannabis, glycerin and beeswax.
Though her official prescription is for pain due to three car accidents, she said her anxiety is helped by marijuana too, which replaced the pharmaceutical medications she used to take.
“The side effects were so severe, I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
Burbank is the founder of MAMA. Her daughter, Jenny, is among her employees. Even though Jenny is not a medical marijuana patient herself, she speaks to community groups about it.
“(We let)them know it is a drug,” Jenny said. “We try to teach people it will interact with other drugs (and) especially that there are a lot of other forms besides smoking it because that’s one of the things people have wrong.”
Those forms include tinctures that go under the tongue, capsules that are swallowed, and the salve to rub on the skin.
Jenny acknowledged there is corruption in the medical marijuana system, especially when it comes to some growers.
“Most of the time I think it’s money-based,” she said. “Any time you have the illegal black market there for any drug, that’s a huge draw for people because they can make a lot of money pretty easily.”
For Sgt. Michael Iwai, with the Oregon State Police, the criminality concerns him especially when people drive while high and endanger others on the road.
“From a law enforcement perspective, we don’t look at it any differently regarding impairment and the operation of a motor vehicle,” he said. “If that person is displaying signs or symptoms that show the person is under the influence of cannabis, regardless if they are a medical marijuana card holder or not, they will be arrested.”
Sandee Burbank shuns that activity too even while advocating for broader use of medical marijuana and looser laws as to who can use it.
“It’s too tight,” she said. “People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder don’t have access to it. All kinds of people who would benefit and who probably do benefit illegally from cannabis for psychological conditions don’t have access to that at all.”
May 20, 2010