In 1998, advocates sold a medical marijuana program to Oregon voters by tugging on heartstrings.
"There are thousands of patients like me, people suffering from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy and a host of other diseases or illnesses that threaten their lives," wrote grandmother Stormy Ray in that year's voters' pamphlet. No drug should be denied them in their efforts to cope with the resulting pain, not even marijuana, she argued.
But only about 3 percent of today's patients cite cancer and even fewer cite seizure-inducing conditions like epilepsy. AIDS and glaucoma don't even make the top five, which is dominated by three less special conditions that could be considered catchalls - pain, spasms and nausea.
Measure 67's advocates projected about 500 new patients a year, which would have swelled participation to 6,000 by now, not counting deaths or withdrawals.
But the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program now encompasses 48,838 users, who pay nearly $2.5 million a year for the substance. They are assisted by 25,486 caregivers and 31,896 growers, though they are allowed to grow and use without assistance, and often do.
Each user can legally possess up to 1.5 pounds of processed marijuana at a time, along with up to six mature plants and 18 immature plants - limits established by the 2005 Legislature. Each grower and caregiver can possess up to the same amount of marijuana and number of mature and immature plants on a per-client basis.
While growers are limited to four clients, there is no limit for caregivers, who are authorized to assist patients who might not be able to manage on their own.
In fact, one Portland marijuana advocate is listed as the official caregiver for 46 users and official grower for four more. Thus, he can legally possess up to 75 pounds of processed marijuana at any given time, plus 300 mature plants and 900 immature plants.
A pound of locally grown marijuana sells for anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000, according to law enforcement sources. In fact, a pound of top-quality product could be swapped for a pound of cocaine, they say.
A mature plant typically yields seven to 15 pounds, so the net allowance could run thousands of pounds of marijuana worth millions of dollars.
To avoid a criminal possession charge, someone who doesn't hold a medical marijuana card is limited to less than one ounce. Law enforcement officials, who have to deal with the fallout, think allowing medical marijuana cardholders, caregivers and growers to possess dozens of times that much, if not hundreds or even thousands, virtually invites abuse.
What's more, today's marijuana is vastly more potent that the casual observer might expect.
The active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, typically tested about 6 percent in the marijuana being smuggled in from Mexico when the drug began gaining popularity in the 1960s, according to the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team. Today, YCINT says, local growers using sophisticated equipment and techniques are producing pot with a THC content of up to 30 percent - five times as much.
Critics say the system is totally lacking in oversight. They say it isn't serving mainly to help sick people, but rather helps criminals and addicts, allowing them to traffic in marijuana more readily without getting caught. The vast majority of participants are abusing the program, they contend.
Advocates also decry the lack of oversight, but from a totally different angle.
Patients who need the drug can't simply purchase it from a drug store or dispensary; they have to deal with a grower. Advocates say that discourages many legitimate users, leading them to drop out of the program.
However, a measure to establish a state-regulated dispensary program was defeated at the polls in November.
Yamhill County is home to 852 registered medical marijuana patients.
Some 781, or 92 percent, list pain as the reason for their use of the drug. Another 197 state muscle spasms, while 118 list nausea.
So few list cancer that it doesn't even qualify for specific numerical breakout. Like all other cited conditions, it is characterized simply as "less than 50."
That's also true of seizures, glaucoma and AIDS.
The local figures mirror the state as a whole. Only 1,566 of the state's entire roster list cancer as one of their reasons, and even fewer list the other conditions advocates touted 12 years ago in selling the program to voters.
According to data analyst Aaron Cossel, participants are allowed to enumerate multiple conditions and sometimes do. That makes the low number citing conditions like cancer or AIDS even more striking.
In February, Republican state Sen. Jeff Kruse of Roseburg introduced a measure to limit the conditions qualifying for participation in the program. Senate Bill 777 would allow marijuana use only for a set of specific conditions, and would prohibit the Oregon Health Authority from adding conditions to the list in the future.
The bill would authorize use only for:
n Nausea stemming from chemotherapy.
n Severe or neuropathic pain.
n Insomnia associated with fibromyalgia.
n Appetite loss from cancer or AIDS.
n Spasticity from multiple sclerosis.
At a March 16 hearing before the Senate Health Care, Human Services and Rural Health Policy Committee on March 16, opponents called the bill "cruel." They argued, "Either you think marijuana is medicine or you don't."
However, that's not the way the ballot measure was presented to voters. At the time, marijuana was billed as an appropriate treatment for a relatively narrow range of specific conditions, not as a panacea for all ills.
The language in 1998's Measure 67 made it clear that marijuana was to be used only for severe, debilitating and potentially life-threatening illnesses, and then only as a last resort for patients not getting relief through conventional treatment. That's what led advocates to project only about 500 people a year would qualify.
For many critics, particularly in the law enforcement community, Kruse's proposal doesn't go nearly far enough. Locally, they are led by Sheriff Jack Crabtree and one of his detectives - Sgt. Chris Ray, who heads the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team.
They say the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program has become nothing more than a front for the sale and use of high-potency pot, perpetuating an existing black market.
Ray and detective Randy Ogle of the Oregon State Police, a YCINT colleague, said they routinely encounter people using pot for conditions that don't qualify, growing more than allowed to under the law and selling pot grown under the auspices of the program to fund some other form of drug habit.
A YCINT case from last May illustrates their complaint. The target was James Woods of McMinnville.
As a registered grower, Woods had a legal right to supply four registered users. They included his 15-year-old son, authorized to take marijuana for attention-deficit disorder and "sleeplessness and lack of appetite" associated with diabetes, neither of which was ever envisioned by advocates.
But Woods was caught with far more marijuana than the law allows. YCINT agents also discovered and seized a quantity of methamphetamine when they raided Woods' grow.
Ray's report included this exchange:
"He said he didn't understand what the state expects him to do with all the excess marijuana that he ends up with after his patients are supplied. I suggested he not sell it."
New registrants require some sort of medical certification.
Back in 1998, advocates led voters to believe that would typically come from a patient's primary care physician. However, in practice, that has never proven the case.
Last year, about 80 percent of all new certifications were provided by a single Portland source - a chain of "clinics" operated by the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation.
The foundation has issued a set of guidelines to help its clients determine which conditions qualify and which don't.
It rules out attention-deficit disorder, even though that was one of the conditions cited for the younger Woods. But it doesn't rule out pain - even pain from a painful knee, which is what foundation head Paul Stanford cited in his own registration.
Stanford defends his own qualification, saying his doctor is amazed anyone with such a bad knee could get by without surgery to fix the problem.
That doesn't surprise Ray one. He said thin claims like those of Woods and Stanford are the rule rather than the exception.
And he said users are by no means alone in abusing the system. In large measure, he said caregivers and growers are also using it for cover.
Stanford is perhaps the state's leading example.
When the law was enacted, the caregiver function was created to protect a spouse, parent or nurse from being prosecuted for administering marijuana to a terminally ill patient. But it quickly changed into something else entirely.
Stanford told the News-Register that he serves as the official caregiver for 46 users. He said he serves as official grower for four others, giving him a total caseload of 50.
He said he is actually growing and supplying the marijuana for all 50, but that only requires 24 plants, enough to produce several hundred pounds per harvest.
He thinks he's managing to stay within the law. If so, critics say he's making a great case for an overhaul.
That's certainly the view of Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry.
He said he could support the program if it was limited to sick people truly in need, but that isn't what he's seeing. "There is nobody who needs 24 ounces of medical marijuana at one time," he said.
Ray and Ogle say Mexican drug cartels use proceeds from marijuana sales to fund trafficking in other drugs, including methamphetamine, powdered cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. And they said local medical marijuana growers are increasingly taking the same tack on a vastly smaller scale.
In one recent local case they prosecuted, a registered medical marijuana caregiver was caught selling pot to support his meth habit. He was supposed to be assisting his ex-girlfriend with her medical needs, but she had left both him and the area.
YCINT caught the grower, Jay Marrington of Lafayette, with 12 mature plants and 26 immature plants. The agency said he was selling it to fund his meth habit.
Ray and Ogle said the association is a common one. In fact, it's the rule.
They say they discover marijuana in about 98 percent of their meth busts.
Marrington insisted he wasn't actually selling the drug, he was just growing it. However, Ray said undercover agents made several buys from him before staging the raid.
Local law enforcement officials all agree that with proper oversight, the program wouldn't be open to such flagrant abuse. They say the state extends a virtual open invitation to lawbreakers because it provides no followup regulatory oversight whatsoever.
Crabtree, Ray and Berry said the state should be requiring actual prescriptions, not simple waivers, which carry a much lower standard.
While the marijuana being grown today is vastly more potent than it used to be, its potency still varies widely from crop to crop. Because the program goes totally unregulated, he said, users have no way to monitor the dosage they are getting.
No legitimate medication has ever been dispensed that way, he said.
If YCINT stops a driver with a bottle of OxyContin in his car, Ray noted, picking up on the theme, they can check the pharmacy label to determine who should be in possession of how much and for what reason. But with marijuana, ostensibly put to the same pain-relief purpose, none of that information is available, he said.
With OxyContin, discreet, refillable amounts are doled out to patients under the direct supervision of physicians and pharmacists held accountable by their licensing organizations. But the supply is virtually unlimited with marijuana, despite the extreme potency it often carries today.
Berry agreed. Outside the program, he noted, possession of anything close to 1.5 pounds of marijuana would constitute proof of intent to sell.
Ironically, the largest barrier to adoption of a highly regulated prescription system is another arm of government - the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance, which means it can't be legally prescribed - or even used in scientific or medical research projects - for any reason.
Medical science has developed a synthetic form of THC, its principal active ingredient, that can be prescribed as Marinol. It is often used to treat nausea and loss of appetite associated with cancer, AIDS and and the powerful chemo used to combat them.
However, Marinol is not effective with pain, leading researchers to suspect any analgesic properties marijuana actually possesses must stem from some other ingredient.
If marijuana were less regulated at the federal level, it could be more regulated at the state level, much the way opiates like OxyContin are, Berry said.
He said pharmacies could then regulate dosage and track use. Under such a system, there would be a clearer distinction between legitimate users and criminals.
Ironically, that's one point on which critics and advocates agree. In fact, it's probably the only one.
Stanford is all for adoption of a prescription system.
He said about 40 percent of his Hemp Foundation clients let their cards lapse because they aren't comfortable with what they have to go through to line up a supply. Dispensing the drug through pharmacies, or even the formal dispensaries envisioned in the failed November ballot measure, would alleviate that problem, he said.
The two sides quickly diverge from that point on.
Stanford is enthused with the big numbers the program is producing. He believes marijuana should ultimately be fully legalized, and thinks the numbers suggest a growing base of support.
For critics, though, the program amounts to nothing more than a deceptive form of back-door legalization.
Ray said legalization advocates "pulled the wool over the eyes of voters" when they won passage of the measure.
Berry said he's not convinced marijuana should be legalized outright, but he said Oregonians are entitled to an honest debate. He terms the state's medical marijuana program a ruse for legalizing marijuana without that debate.
"If our state wants to have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of legal marijuana, let's do it," he said. "But let's not back-door it."
By Hannah Hoffman
Of the News-Register
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