The police raid on Martin Martinez, a Seattle man who uses marijuana to dull the chronic pain from a motorcycle accident, made the page-one headline last Thursday: "Was Pot Raid Justified?" Martinez's lawyer, Douglas Hiatt, insists vehemently that it was not.
In Seattle, the topic of medical marijuana and the law leads quickly to Hiatt. A native Chicagoan, 49, this blue-jeaned barrister is vehement often, his deep voice rising quickly to indignant italics.
His cellphone rings. "I gotta take this," he says. "Hello? Yes ... No ... No, we're not going to do that! Look, this is my client ... Yes, I'll be there." Click.
Originally a public defender, Hiatt is now exclusively a medical-marijuana lawyer. It is not a lucrative practice. His clients are often broke, and typically they are merely trying to be left alone. Hiatt says he has been paid in salmon, and once in an organic pig.
His first client was an AIDS patient stuck in the King County Jail. Hiatt went to Dan Satterberg, then deputy prosecutor, for help — and it was Satterberg who smoothed things over after last week's raid on Martinez.
To Hiatt, King County's Republican prosecutor is "Good King Dan," who follows the law that 59 percent of Washington voters approved in 1998.
Most prosecutors around the state don't, Hiatt says. "It makes me crazy," he says.
For healthy folk who think of marijuana as getting stoned, "medical marijuana" may sound like a doper's deception. Hiatt shakes his head. His clients are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Typically, they are on disability. Many have cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease or Crohn's disease.
AIDS patients are using marijuana to control nausea, so they don't vomit up the 40-odd pills they have to take every day. In 2000, when a judge forbade writer and AIDS patient Peter McWilliams from using marijuana, he threw up his "AIDS cocktail," choked on his vomit and died.
The word "cocktail," makes Hiatt bristle. "It's not a damned cocktail. This is chemotherapy for life."
McWilliams had been ordered to use Marinol, a drug with one of marijuana's active ingredients. Hiatt says he has a client right now ordered by a judge to use Marinol.
"It makes my client really stoned, and he doesn't want that," Hiatt says. "It's expensive. It costs $10 to $20 a pill. Why use it when you can grow a house plant?"
Hiatt's typical client is one, like Martinez, with chronic pain. Says Hiatt, "Their doctor puts them on OxyContin, morphine, one of the opiates. Their brain is in a fog because of the opiates. They're constipated. They're miserable. They say, 'I lost my life.' Then they try marijuana. It allows them to cut their opiate dose in half. Some of them eliminate it. They feel better. Their mind is clearer. They're not constipated anymore."
"I've heard that story five hundred times," Hiatt says. "Because it works."
Hiatt estimates there are 25,000 medical-marijuana patients in Washington. The state law says they can have a 60-day supply, but since 1998 it has been up to local officials to say what that is. The Department of Health will have a public hearing in Tumwater Aug. 25 on a new rule to allow patients 24 ounces of dried plant and six mature plants. And that's not enough, Hiatt insists.
"Every single medical marijuana patient I have is over these numbers," he says.
I relate Hiatt's story partly because I believe in letting these folks alone, but partly also because I had an aunt who was in sharp pain from a pinched nerve. Her doctor prescribed an opiate, which handled the pain but messed up her mind and her gut.
My aunt was the most un-stoned person I ever knew, but she told me she would have taken marijuana, or anything else, if it had killed the pain, and to hell with the government. I would be no different.