In the long struggle to free the cannabis plant, there have been few watershed moments. Most of our time has been spent battling legislators and law enforcement and countering the government-funded propaganda machine that soils the best efforts of activists. Victories like the passage of Proposition 215 in California, which paved the way for patients to acquire cannabis medicine, have been few and far between. And when politicians have offered statements of support—such as Obama's recent declaration that federal authorities will be easing their war on medical marijuana—they have proven to be little more than political posturing. The recent raids on Southern California dispensaries, carried out with the blessings of the DEA, have borne this out.
Occasionally, however, an authentic moment of change occurs. For Colorado, that moment came in July 2009, when hundreds of medical-marijuana patients and activists showed up to attend a state Board of Health hearing on the question of whether to limit medical-marijuana suppliers to helping only five patients at a time. Obviously, if such a proposal passed, safe access to medicine would be made difficult at best—and impossible at worst—for thousands of patients in the state.
Colorado passed Amendment 20, which cleared the way for legal medical marijuana, way back in the 2000 election. However, state residents were skittish about implementing a program, and the Bush administration quickly proved to be no friend of cannabis, so the few dispensaries that did exist operated quietly and out of sight. But over the past year, a seismic shift has occurred. Perhaps heartened by the promise of a supposedly kinder, gentler Obama administration, good news is always met with a "wait and see" attitude., Colorado suddenly became the new hotbed for medical marijuana. At the beginning of 2009, only 5,000 Coloradans had applied to the state registry of patients over the preceding nine-year span. But by July, that number had more than doubled—and there were predictions that, by the end of the year, the total number of registered medical-marijuana users would exceed 15,000. The dispensary scene exploded simultaneously.
So when the state Board of Health made overtures on curbing the phenomenon, the Colorado medical-marijuana community showed up in force to protest. The result? After 12 hours of testimony—with some of the most persuasive statements coming from war veterans—the proposal was rejected. Fiscally sound government was also a factor in the decision: Citing the nationwide recession, the state health department's chief medical officer, Ned Calonge, expressed concern about using state funds to regulate medical marijuana at the expense of other public-health programs.
Since July, there have been other triumphs as well. Jason Lauve, a patient who uses cannabis for the severe pain he suffers as the result of a skiing accident, was charged with felony possession of 34 ounces of pot. Colorado's medical-marijuana law states that a patient may be in possession of only six plants and two ounces; but Lauve was sifting his plants for trichomes to be ingested with food, and the law also stipulates: "For quantities of marijuana in excess of these amounts, a patient or his or her primary care-giver may raise as an affirmative defense ... that such greater amounts were medically necessary to address the patient's debilitating medical condition."
Lauve's attorney, Rob Corry, who has been at the forefront of medical-marijuana legal battles in the state, argued brilliantly that this was exactly Jason's case, making it clear that the burden of proof doesn't lie with the patient; rather, it is the state's responsibility to prove that the amount of medicine a patient possesses is excessive. Jason was acquitted of all charges in August. Jury members told the media that Jason could have had "a ton" of pot and they still would have voted to acquit him. Corry is also handling the appeal of Stacy Clendenin, who was convicted in 2006 of felony possession and distribution of marijuana. Why? As a caregiver, she had never met the patients for whom she was providing medicine. In his opening brief, Corry wrote: An analogy is a pharmacist who dispenses medicine manufactured by a drug company: there is no need for the individuals who produce the medicine at a drug company far away to personally meet the patients who ultimately use the medicine. Any contrary rule unreasonably restricts a beneficial, life-saving medicine from those who need it to survive but who are incapable of producing it on their own, and unreasonably punishes those like Ms. Clendenin who generously help suffering people."
There's little doubt that of all the outstanding questions on the medical-marijuana scene, it's the dispensaries that have politicians most perplexed. California is proof of that: Scores of communities in the state have imposed zoning laws to stem their proliferation—the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") mind-set in action. But at present, the dispensary scene in Colorado is still growing. Attorney Rob Corry once again cites state law, which clearly asserts that No person, including a patient or primary care-giver, shall be entitled to the protection ... for his or her acquisition, possession, manufacture, production, use, sale, distribution, dispensing, or transportation of marijuana for any use other than medical use." As Corry points out, The term 'dispensing' certainly implies that a dispensary would be the logical place to dispense medicine."
As 2010 gets underway, Colorado is well on its way to becoming a medical-marijuana superpower, with at least 100 to 150 dispensaries expected to be up and running by the end of 2009.
But the boom hasn't occurred without a few problematic questions cropping up, the most glaring one being: 'Where is all this pot coming from?"
It's a question that Todd Young and Andy Orr must address. They're co-owners of the Therapeutic Compassion Club in Boulder. Todd and Andy scrupulously follow state law to the letter and maintain a very strict membership (referral only) in order to maintain security while at the same time providing everyone with their proper share of medicine. We have a limited supply of medicine, and we can only handle our patients," Todd says. "Otherwise, we'd be forced to go to the black market, and so would our patients."
Ernie Travis of Boulder Vital Herbs has barely been able to keep up with his new clientele, which has grown exponentially via word of mouth. "My biggest challenge has been keeping meds on the shelf," he says. When I started this business, I could only legally grow 24 plants, so I had to buy a lot of my meds. Now that people have gotten to know me, they've
made me their caregiver. So I can now grow more. Right now, it's my No. 1 stress. The other challenge is dealing with all the misinformation out there. I spend way more time explaining laws than I do explaining different strains."
Truth be told, dispensaries that shade the truth in order to keep their profit margins high spread much of the misinformation. Kathleen Chippi, who runs One Brown Mouse in Nederland, gets downright angrywhen patients come into her store and tell her about dispensaries who have informed them that, in order to purchase medicine, these patients must sign exclusive agreements naming the dispensary as their primary caregiver.
"It's a blatant lie," Kathleen fumes. "Patients can go anywhere they want. It's ridiculous that people are being told that they need a membership in order to buy medicine."
Even worse is the fact that some dispensaries are engaging in downright unscrupulous practices. Jacob Lill of Medical Cannabis Colorado LLC in Denver lays it out: "Charging $70 to $90 for an eighth is wrong! Kifing the medicine and then selling the kif separately is wrong! Being unreliable, lazy, and ignoring people who are trusting you is wrong! There are many who are getting involved in this industry with no experience and are motivated only by money—and it's wrong!"
So Jason has tried to make things right. He offers some of the best and cheapest med-pot in the state, high-quality medicine at the lowest possible price: $35 for an eighth, including tax. His dispensary also provides resources and services, including holistic healing such as massage therapy and energy work, pain-management support groups, counseling, addiction support groups and a variety of classes.
Says Mark Rose, who runs Grateful Meds in Nederland: The fact is, people are still scared after 70 years of propaganda. For a lot of people, registering as a medical-marijuana patient is a big step. Many of the dispensary owners who have rushed to open are only looking at the short term; they're in it for the big bucks now. But give it time—the best dispensaries will make themselves known, and people will gravitate toward them."
Dispensary owners are cautiously optimistic about the federal government's interest in the burgeoning Colorado scene. Many seem to believe that if they assiduously comply with state standards, the Feds won't target them. Of course, that flies in the face of last summer's raids in San Diego and Los Angeles. The mainstream media has been quick to tag the Colorado med-pot boom as the new Wild West," but that's wholly inaccurate: The dispensaries do want standards, but no one can agree upon exactly what they should be.
Recently in Longmont, CO, a meeting of dispensary owners and others involved in the medical-marijuana industry made it clear that hammering out a viable system will take considerable patience. Proposals were put before the group that would prevent dispensaries from opening near day-care centers or schools; signs displaying pot leaves would also be prohibited.
Many in attendance objected, calling the proposals nothing more than a modern form of reefer madness that demonized a particular type of medicine for no good reason.
Hardcore activists are more resistant, taking even the current Colorado law to task. "Why should medicine be restricted this way?" asked one dispensary owner following the meeting. You don't need a doctor's recommendation to buy Advil or Tylenol. Too much aspirin can kill you, but cannabis won't—are there restrictions on drugstores? Pharmacies don't worry about schoolchildren, and the stuff behind their counters can be absolutely toxic. Why should we try to regulate ourselves in this way? We're only hurting ourselves by predefining our industry's products as something harmful."
In the meantime, the Colorado "green rush" continues, with entrepreneurs pouring into the state to take advantage of the new financial opportunities. Considering our ailing economy, with the real-estate, banking and construction sectors currently in the tank, there are few industries that offer such high hopes for liquidity. Still, nobody likes fast-buck artists making their dough on the backs of medical patients.
Right now, the best solution for creating and maintaining a viable system for safe access—one that truly addresses those who need the medicine—comes from Rob Corry. It's an idea that should be embraced by everyone who wishes to see medical marijuana become a reality.
"It's time to pull ourselves together," Corry says. The more patients, providers, growers and industry people we can pull together, the stronger our voting bloc will be for the future." That way, he adds, we cannot be ignored."