Rx wars

The nether world of fed-state bureaucracy makes access to marijuana no easy feat

Nathan Sands of Compassionate Coalition has patients’ backs.

Nathan Sands of Compassionate Coalition has patients’ backs.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

“Patients are under attack,” argued Nathan Sands, a patients-rights advocate at Compassionate Coalition who’s fed up with the feds going after medicinal-marijuana users in California. “There’s a lot of collusion between state and federal governments. States have no more power,” and as a result patients with multiple sclerosis, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and arthritis are being arrested.

More than 100 federal charges against medicinal-marijuana patients have been documented since 2001 by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. When the federal government arrests a patient or cannabis-dispensary owner, local, state and county governments either assist in the arrest or concede to the fed’s higher power. The problem, according to Sands, is that state governments receive funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration, earmarked for the War on Drugs. Budgets are tight and cities and counties are strapped for cash as is, so they cooperate with the federal government—to the detriment of patients.

The state Legislature passed Senate Bill 420 in 2003 to create the option for counties to institute ID cards to protect cannabis patients from arrest—though, as a compromise, the law limits the amount of marijuana patients can have on hand to eight dried ounces, in addition to six mature or 12 immature plants. The California state Board of Equalization collects taxes on cannabis dispensaries, but because of a ruling this past April, the state does not require dispensaries to declare the source of their income. Still, patients like 35-year-old Sacramentan Ryan Landers face myriad hardships—and legal consequences.

Landers, state director of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis, has long used medicinal marijuana to combat nausea and appetite loss brought about by AIDS, as well as to alleviate the side effects of the prescription drugs he uses. In 1997, however, Landers was charged with smoking in public in downtown Sacramento and for carrying a scant .04 grams of marijuana—not much, considering that possession of up to an ounce is punishable by a maximum $100 fine.

Landers, a state-approved medicinal-marijuana patient, had to go to court to defend himself. “The head of a major narcotics office actually had already sent a letter [dismissing my case] to my attorney,” Landers explained of his day in court. “We were at city hall discussing dispensaries, and the entire time [the official] never mentioned the fact that he had sent a letter to my attorney dropping the charges.”

But this was just the beginning for Landers.

Specifically, Landers is frustrated with the federal government’s policy on marijuana research. He cites, for example, a prescription drug called Marinol, which is a synthetic form of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). Marinol, which didn’t work for Landers or his friends, is intended to induce the same nausea- and pain-abating effects as marijuana the herb, but the very existence of Marinol, Landers said, opens a bag of worms.

“If marijuana has no medicinal value whatsoever, why would you have Marinol be a prescription?” he argued, citing the obvious fact that if the feds don’t recognize the natural form of THC in marijuana the plant, how can they justify the medicinal use of its synthetic counterpart.

Landers’ frustrations with research were echoed by Dale Gieringer of the California branch of the NORML. Gieringer, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering economic systems, discovered that smoking out of a vaporizer—a device that burns the THC off marijuana without burning the plant matter itself—produced no detectable carcinogens. The presence of lung-damaging carcinogens was one reason the DEA frowned on medicinal marijuana, he said.

“We looked at literally hundreds of components in marijuana smoke and the vaporizer delivered pretty much 95 percent THC,” Gieringer said. “Rather than getting hundreds of junk compounds, you just get medically active ones,” as with the use of Marinol.

Further studies, however, have met an impasse. Gieringer said his research was only possible because of legal loopholes that have since been blocked by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the DEA has turned down his requests to import marijuana from the Netherlands. “They complain that smoking marijuana is inappropriate for medicine, yet block vaporizer research,” Gieringer said. “Basically when it comes to marijuana, there’s no such thing as freedom of research in the United States. Marijuana research is in the dark ages.”

Part of the federal government’s reluctance to legalize medical marijuana may stem from the fear that cannabis dispensaries serve as an additional source for recreational marijuana. But marijuana use among teenagers actually has dropped since the implementation of Proposition 215, Landers said, citing a 2006 study conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project and Mitch Earleywine, a professor at the State University of New York. The study showed that teenage marijuana use had gone down by as much as 50 percent in states that had legalized medicinal marijuana. California, for its part, saw a 47 percent reduction in marijuana use among ninth graders.

“Kids don’t want to smoke their grandma’s medicine,” Landers offered.

This is not to say that younger individuals won’t use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Consider Nadine (who asked that her real name not be used), who began feeling pain in her joints in high school. When the pain worsened, she saw her doctor, who told her she could choose between rowing and playing the piano. She chose rowing—and the pain grew so bad that she found herself using crutches at 16. It turned out Nadine suffered from fibromyalgia, a chronic condition known for pain it causes in tendons, ligaments and muscles.

Nadine moved from her native Berkeley and enrolled at UC Davis to study neurobiology and psychology. She no longer needed crutches, but the pain wasn’t going away and prescription medicines brought about their own problems. While in Holland in 2003, Nadine smoked marijuana, she said, and found that it assuaged the symptoms.

“A lot of the stuff that my doctor was prescribing me was making me feel pretty fuzzy-headed,” she said. She spoke to a friend, who in turn put her in touch with a cannabis dispensary. She underwent a background check of her medical history and was granted an ID. After three months of medicinal-marijuana use, the pain abated to manageable levels.

Nadine hasn’t experienced any trouble with law enforcement … yet. She’d rather purchase marijuana at a cannabis dispensary; she trusts them. “With the establishment I went to, it was really clear they had the needs of the patient in mind,” she said. “I felt like it was a lot safer and a lot more cost-effective in terms of the quality.” As a result of her treatment, Nadine said she’s active in ways she could not be on her prescribed medication.

“I wish people would realize it’s not just something people do recreationally. It has value and it has merit. It keeps it so that I can stay productive for my life.