Nearly 2,000 state residents are authorized to use pot
KALAMAZOO -- Steve used to take prescription painkillers such as Vicodin after he tore the tendons in his right hand about six years ago.
Now he's using fewer pills. Instead, he smokes marijuana to ease the pain.
"No, it's not a cure-all," said Steve, 37, of Kalamazoo. "It helps so I don't have to take a handful of pills every day."
Steve is among nearly 2,000 residents in Michigan who are legally using marijuana to treat serious ailments such as HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.
Michigan residents last November voted to legalize medical marijuana. In April, the state began issuing photo identification cards to users who have been approved.
Medical-marijuana patients, advocates, law-enforcement officials and others say the program is working fairly well, but there have been bumps along the way. Among the concerns that have been raised:
• Patients are on their own to get the drug -- either by obtaining starter plants or seeds to grow plants or buying it. It is still illegal to buy marijuana or seeds.
• What constitutes an "enclosed, locked" marijuana facility?
• More research is needed to understand the medical benefits of the plant and proper dosages.
• Law enforcement is encountering some legal issues, such as whether a patient who has received a doctor's note but not a state identification card is breaking the law by using medical marijuana.
Steve said he suffers from chronic pain, attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. His doctor recommended medical marijuana because of the chronic pain from the hand injury, which he said has left him unemployed and seeking disability payments. He said he's used marijuana before, but until he got his identification card, his only relief was painkillers.
Steve and other medical-marijuana patients interviewed for this report declined to give their full names, fearing their use of the drug could attract burglaries. A patient can legally possess 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana, valued on the street at $250, and up to 12 marijuana plants, valued each at $1,000, police said.
'They are on their own'
As of June 23, the state had issued 2,674 identification cards for medical marijuana -- and rejected 434 applications. In southwestern Michigan, Kalamazoo County was tops among counties, with 70 identification cards issued to caregivers and patients. Caregivers are those licensed to grow and provide marijuana to patients.
Across the state, 700 identification cards had been issued to caregivers, including 78 in southwestern Michigan.
Applications have been rejected primarily because they aren't properly filled out and fees weren't paid, said James McCurtis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, which reviews applications and issues the cards.
If an identification card is approved, it's up to the patient to figure out how to obtain the marijuana.
"They are on their own. That's pretty much where it is," McCurtis said.
That might be the biggest challenge in establishing the use of medical marijuana in Michigan, which is at least the 15th state to have a medical-marijuana law.
Until a network of caregivers is established, patients can legally smoke it, but they can't legally obtain it.
Law and order
One legal case involving medical marijuana has been reported in the Kalamazoo area since the law took effect, police said.
Carl was arrested in November with a stash of marijuana that is permitted under the medical-marijuana law. But the law hadn't taken effect yet, and he didn't have an identification card.
Carl, who lives in Kalamazoo, suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. He isn't using marijuana now because his case is pending.
"It was great. It was a good thing," he said. "It was either that or take a fistful of prescription meds."
Other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and larger quantities of marijuana are "of a far greater concern" than the regulation of medical marijuana, said Capt. Joseph Taylor of the Kalamazoo Valley Enforcement Team.
"What I predict is that we're going to experience people saying that they're caregivers when they're actually growing for themselves," Taylor said.
Taylor said the law requires a secured, locked area for growing marijuana, and exactly what that means hasn't been determined. Parameters of the law may need to be defined in the courts.
Carl's lawyer, John Targowski, said he doesn't foresee much law-enforcement action against medical-marijuana wrongdoing.
"If I'm a cop, I'm not going to risk my life to have a guy pee in a cup every once in a while," Targowski said.
Some Kalamazoo-area physicians have been reluctant to recommend medical marijuana, forcing patients to travel to other parts of the state to get a doctor's endorsement, several users said.
"Patients, they're having to jump through hoops," said Greg Francisco, of Paw Paw, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association.
Doctors are using caution because they are trying to understand the medical benefits before recommending marijuana, said Dr. Ronald Seagle, the family medicine outpatient medical director at Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies.
"Right now medical marijuana is very new," he said. "It's so new it's not within the realm of accepted medical standards yet."
Seagle and medical-marijuana patients and caregivers say more research is needed.
For doctors, recommending marijuana isn't like prescribing drugs, Seagle said.
Doctors recommend it, the state regulates it, and patients use it how they wish. This situation poses more confusion for doctors, Seagle said.
"In the medical community, we are taking it seriously," he said. "Personally, why I think any research is not being done at this point is because of the public stigma of smoking marijuana."
Aaron Hatfield is working to erase that stigma.
Hatfield heads the Kalamazoo Compassion Club, a loose-knit group of about 50 patients, caregivers and advocates of medical-marijuana that meets every other week.
At a recent meeting, several club members talked about the many pills they once took to treat their conditions.
"My wife, my family, would much rather be around me on marijuana than (on the antidpressant and anti-anxiety drug) Effexor," Hatfield said.
He said public perception needs to change so research on marijuana can advance. But for now, club members believe people are starting to recognize their cause.
"I abide by the laws. I pay my taxes," Hatfield said. "I'm not a criminal."
by Blake Thorne
July 5, 2009