Dr. Feelgood

Grass Valley doctor takes on the medical establishment over medical marijuana

Although he can recommend that his patients use marijuana to relieve pain, Dr. Banister can’t supply them with the drug the way he would with a legal prescription. Most of his patients with medical marijuana recommendations either grow their own plants or buy their pot on the black market.

Although he can recommend that his patients use marijuana to relieve pain, Dr. Banister can’t supply them with the drug the way he would with a legal prescription. Most of his patients with medical marijuana recommendations either grow their own plants or buy their pot on the black market.

Photo by Tom Angel

It was surprising, walking in, that the wood-paneled set of rooms I found at the top of the stairs was actually a doctor’s office.

There is no dizzying scent of disinfectant, nary a wall-mounted box of latex gloves, no brisk nurses swooshing by in white pants. Instead, there are lots of plants everywhere, a plate of fresh cut-up pineapple, and slices of what looks like date bread sitting in the waiting room. And instead of Lysol, it’s the earthy smells of patchouli and wet grass that scent the air.

Located in a nondescript brown-shingled building, Dr. Stephen Banister’s Health Transformation office seems more like a cabin somewhere than anything else, and it’s complete with a pleasant view of quaint downtown Grass Valley. It is, I think, a pretty comfortable place to come—especially if you’re not feeling well.

Dr. Banister, the receptionist tells me, is running a little late, so I take a seat in the tiny waiting room. Across from me sits an Indian woman with a nasty cough and a tall man who doesn’t once look up. There’s a sign above the woman that declares this room a “Chemical Free Zone.”

“If you can smell it, please don’t use it,” the sign reads in large block letters. “Some of our patients are extremely sensitive to scents.”

Just as I’m about to wonder if my shampoo is scent-offensive, in walks Dr. Banister, his hand extended. He’s 55 years old but he looks younger than that. He has longish brown hair, dark-blue eyes and a quick smile. In his sandals, blue pants and plaid shirt, he looks more like a busy father about to rush off to his kids’ school play than the busy doctor he is.

And, in a way, it’s for all the peacenik reasons that he kind of sticks out in the medical community—in his practice of holistic medicine and his willingness to criticize his peers—that’s got him to this point. And that point could be the end of his ability to practice medicine in California, all because he refuses to stop giving his patients medical permission slips to use marijuana.

Especially at this time of the year, with the velvety-green hills spreading out over the seemingly endless valley and wildflowers blooming like firecrackers, the drive to Banister’s office in Grass Valley is delightful.

Grass Valley, population 9,300, is a charming little foothill burg with a thriving downtown that features stores like “Confectionately Yours” and “Baby News.” Its main industry is tourism, for the historic gold mining that settled the town, and it still has wooden sidewalks in some spots. The three-times-weekly newspaper here, The Union, features front-page stories about such things as a group of elementary students who raised $1,000 in donations for the local rape crisis center, this winter’s unusually low snow pack, and the high school track team’s winning record.

This is a small town with a palpably small-town feel.

It’s rather unlikely that the battle for medical marijuana is being fought so vehemently here.

For Banister, the struggle started in 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the use of medical marijuana, by a wide margin. At the time, Banister had been practicing holistic medicine (which, he explains, emphasizes treating the “whole person” through such non-traditional practices as acupuncture, herb therapy and nutrition therapy) for seven years.

He says now that he’d been “aware” that some marijuana use seemed to have a positive effect on some of his patients. They’d been coming to him for years, reporting that smoking it relieved their symptoms and made sleep easier and more peaceful. It seemed to calm nausea, stave off migraine headaches and help to maintain the weights of patients that without it had no appetite.

It was, Banister says, just what the doctor ordered—a drug that treated many symptoms in many patients with few to no negative side effects. So, after Prop. 215 passed, he eagerly started giving his patients what they were asking for—medical permission to use marijuana.

While he’s an ardent defender of medical marijuana use, Banister is clear that not everyone who asks for the recommendation ends up getting one. And really, at a cost of $160 for a “cannabis visit,” not everyone can afford one. Patients seeking one have to provide “medical proof” of a “verifiable illness” before Banister will give them the form letter that essentially exempts from laws prohibiting individual marijuana use and possession.

He’s not sure exactly how many patients he’s provided with recommendations and shrugs his shoulders and laughs a little when asked about that.

“I just never thought to do that,” he says.

He does say, however, that it’s a “considerable” number. He chalks the heavy use up to the fact that marijuana—or cannabis, as he calls it—treats so many patients with different symptoms. “It’s truly a very effective treatment,” he says. “Why wouldn’t it be used a lot?”

But Banister’s whole-hearted and obviously sincere belief in the power of medical marijuana may end up being his ultimate downfall. The state Medical Licensing Board, through the Attorney General’s Office, has filed suit against him, alleging that he’s guilty of a laundry list of professional misdeeds. Among them are charges of “gross negligence, incompetence, repeated negligent acts and dishonesty.”

They’re serious charges. Serious enough for the board to consider revoking his medical license at a hearing scheduled for early this summer. The board filed the suit in June 2000 after a three-year investigation into Banister’s practice.

What it came up with, in the words of the suit, was “shocking.”

Dr. Banister has lived in Grass Valley for 23 years. Since he’s one of the only doctors in Northern California who are willing to provide medical-marijuana recommendations, he’s had patients come from as far away as Eureka to get them.

Photo by Tom Angel

It turns out that the Attorney General’s Office had been investigating Dr. Banister since 1997, when it received its first complaint about the marijuana recommendations that were apparently flooding from Banister’s office.

The suit outlines the cases of three of Banister’s patients, all of whom procured marijuana recommendations from him between 1997 and 1999. It alleges that he didn’t give proper physical examinations before approving their use of marijuana to two of them and never even saw the third in person. That last patient, a 34-year-old woman who complained of back pain, received her recommendation from Banister after her chiropractor called him and asked Banister to administer it. The woman, the suit says, picked up her marijuana recommendation—good for one year—from Banister’s receptionist without ever seeing the doctor.

The suit also alleges that he recommended marijuana for questionable uses. Banister approved pot use to relieve everything from menstrual cramps and nausea to headaches and neck pain in the patients, and the Medical Board alleges that he’s guilty of “grossly” over-prescribing marijuana even for patients with the chronic, serious illnesses Prop. 215 was supposed to provide marijuana to treat.

But sitting in his cluttered office, Banister shrugs off the complaints as “nonsense” and says he’s just trying to make his patients feel better. And if marijuana helps them, he reasons, why shouldn’t they have access to it?

“The way I see it, this is a legitimate treatment for legitimate illnesses,” Banister says. “I just wish more doctors would be willing to [recommend medical marijuana], because I’m too busy to see everyone who needs it.”

Banister has found himself at the center of the national whirlwind of a debate over the use of medical marijuana. It is, he says, somewhere he never expected to be when he graduated from the University of Miami’s medical school in 1971. He reports that he was a “pretty normal” kind of a student back in his native state of Maryland, one who didn’t get into much trouble.

He remembers seeing anti-drug propaganda in elementary school, videos that showed people alternating between catatonic states and seizure-like convulsions.

“They’d show people committing all these violent acts and say they were high on marijuana,” he says now. “It was just ridiculous.”

Banister started his medical career as a general practitioner, the kind of all-purpose doctor you go see for an ear infection, a sprained knee or food poisoning. In the 29 years he’s practiced medicine, his medical license has never been challenged.

He’s operated a successful independent practice in Grass Valley for 23 years. But seven years ago, Banister says he started getting disenchanted with the confines of traditional medicine and switched his practice to holistic medicine.

In a lot of ways it’s a subtle switch. He still treats those ear infections and the like, but he says now he’s more apt to recommend meditation, counseling or acupuncture to treat some common illnesses and problems than the general practitioner he once was would have been.

For example, Banister related that during a recent examination of a woman who complained of chronic sleeplessness he ascertained that her rowdy neighbors appeared to be disturbing her sleep, something she hadn’t realized. “Another doctor might have given her sleeping pills,” he says. “ … I just told her to do something about the neighbors.”

Banister does still prescribe “traditional” medication, although he says now as a holistic doctor he has more freedom to treat his patients effectively. He points out that traditional pain relievers and medications often don’t work well for everyone. It’s Banister’s view that one medication may work well for one person but horribly for the next.

“This way, I can treat with acupuncture, or nutrition therapy. … I feel like I get to know my patients very well before I treat them,” he says.

Whatever Banister is doing, it seems to be working. His patient load has done nothing but increase in recent years. In fact, he’s so busy that he had to hire a partner recently to help him manage them all.

By the looks of things in his office, Banister is a bit of a health nut. There’s the fruit and bread in the waiting room, along with a big bag of dried vegetables on his desk. He’s lean and fit and looks like the kind of guy who probably spends at least an hour day breaking a sweat. He says he doesn’t smoke marijuana himself but stopped short of revealing if he’d indulged before. ("That’s like asking if Bill Clinton ever smoked marijuana,” he replies. “I prefer to leave that as it is.")

His desk is also scattered with papers, many of which refer to the war on drugs he’s so opposed to. If Banister had his way, the government would model its drug policies after Holland’s. There, drug use is legal, taxable and closely monitored.

“You have people there who smoke marijuana in public, and there’s far less crime and addiction there than we have here,” he points out. “Marijuana smokers are far less violent and far healthier than alcoholics.”

Part of the Medical Board’s criticism of him stems from federal research that marijuana is an addictive drug. That’s just so much baloney, Banister says, pointing to the increasingly common abuse and addiction of prescription drugs as proof.

“People get more addicted to Valium,” he says. “If they’re going to say that we can’t use marijuana as medicine because 1 percent of the population gets addicted to it, then we have to prohibit the use of alcohol and caffeine and dozens of prescription drugs, because far more than 1 percent of those users get addicted to them.”

It does appear, though, that Banister realizes that at his medical license hearing this summer, he may very well end up losing his license—at least temporarily. He’s a practical man. He’s aware of what might happen and says “it’s not the end of the world” if it does. If his license is revoked, he’ll still be able to see patients, but only under specific guidelines (he’d have to tell patients his status and agree to attend “re-education classes” taught by the Medical Board, etc.), he’d be under strict supervision, and his ability to prescribe medications could be severely limited.

In the end, even that doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s vowed to keep handing out those one-page recommendations that have gotten him into so much trouble. And in some ways, he seems a little confused about all the fuss surrounding his otherwise peaceful office.

“I don’t think most doctors know how useful [marijuana] is," he says. "Maybe I figured it out too soon."