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Community seeks clarity about medical marijuana
by AMANDA WINTERS,
MARK COUHIG AND MATTHEW NASH
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.
The complexity — some say the cloudiness — of Washington’s medical cannabis law has many people who are professionally affected by the debate over its use feeling a little skittish.
That’s true both of doctors, who fear repercussions from authorizing the use of cannabis, and those who operate what are incorrectly but commonly called “dispensaries.”
Dr. James Rotchford, a Port Townsend pain and addiction specialist, says state law provides clear criteria for issuing medical marijuana authorizations for patients, especially for those in “intractable pain.” He says that in accordance with those criteria he has issued authorizations, first providing patients with clear explanations of both the risks and the benefits of cannabis. That’s important, he said, pointing out as an example that while medical marijuana is approved for Hepatitis C, its use makes cirrhosis more likely.
Rotchford said despite the clear guidelines, many of his colleagues are reluctant to authorize the use of cannabis.
He said the issue is contentious in part because current discussions regarding the use of medical cannabis “aren’t rational. There are those who are very strong against it and those who are very strong for it.”
Rotchford said he authorizes its use because, “Ethically, I’m required to keep my patients’ interest foremost.”
Rotchford noted that in December 2010 his office was raided by federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and as a result he agreed to relinquish his DEA Registration. That means he can no longer prescribe controlled substances, which are among the primary tools of his pain management trade.
The DEA said Rotchford was holding his patients’ prescription drugs, dispensing them over time. He admitted to the practice, saying he was concerned the drugs might otherwise be abused. “I didn’t know that was illegal,” he said.
Rotchford said he doesn’t know if he was chosen for special treatment because he authorizes the use of marijuana, but said, “Once I’m looked at as a bad guy, everything is seen in that light.”
Regarding his colleagues in the medical profession, Rotchford said, “I’m sure” some are refusing to authorize the use of medical marijuana out of concern about possible repercussions. “Just out of the possibility there might be concerns, they avoid it. Out of concern and fear,” he said.
More research needed
Dr. Ronald Bergman, a family practice/occupational medicine physician practicing at the Lower Elwha Health Clinic, describes himself as “a very strong and positive advocate of the responsible use of medical marijuana in the treatment of chronic pain.”
Bergman, a crusader against the abuse of painkillers, says cannabis is a much safer alternative to the opioids that he regularly prescribes. Because that’s the case, he also provided authorizations for marijuana use — until the Elwha clinic asked him to stop.
Bergman agreed many of his colleagues are opposed to the medical use of marijuana. “They see it as abuse, like cocaine, methamphetamines or Ecstasy.”
Bergman said that’s due in part to the fact that “It has been abused so much.”
Concern by doctors over the authorization of medical marijuana has led to the creation of specialty organizations whose purpose is almost solely to authorize its use, Bergman noted. That includes “several groups out of Seattle that have mobile units.” These organizations charge $120-$150 for an authorization, he said, and the authorization needs to be renewed annually.
“It’s a money machine,” Bergman said.
The advocates for medical marijuana use, including those who operate the so-called “dispensaries,” say they’re trying to ensure the medical cannabis provided to patients is safe and available.
They say they don’t operate marijuana dispensaries, which remain illegal, but rather operate as advocacy organizations or cooperatives.
They also say they are disappointed with the Washington Legislature’s efforts during the recent session and with Gov. Christine Gregoire’s veto, which together simply muddied further the waters surrounding the confusing law.
Perhaps more importantly, the new law doesn’t provide them with the protection from the federal government they had hoped for.
Scott Finch, a Sequim resident, opened the nonprofit Rain Shadow Cooperative in March to serve as a go-between, providing authorized patients with cannabis grown by authorized patients. He now says he’s dissolving the corporation, citing the failure by Gregoire to veto Section 404, a new addition to the law.
That section says a provider only can work with one patient at a time and must take a minimum 15-day break when changing patients.
Finch said the law previously said providers only could work with one patient at a time, but he interpreted the law as allowing a provider to work with multiple patients as long as each transaction was one-on-one.
He said he was disappointed with the governor’s decision, not least because it will cause a “disruption in the relationships” that have been created between providers and patients, requiring patients to find new providers.
Bill Steward, who operates Clallam Bay Coastal Canna Advocates, is continuing to act as an intermediary, bringing together authorized patients who grow their own cannabis with authorized patients who cannot grow their own.
He said “The guidelines are vague,” but also said, “We follow the state’s laws.” That includes ensuring that the growers he works with have no more than the 24 ounces of prepared cannabis and the 15 plants allowed under Washington law.
Steward says his is an “advocacy organization,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, but he is hoping the laws soon will allow him to open up as a storefront — as a true dispensary.
Richard Pharr, who operates Olympian Canna LLC in Port Angeles, still is trying to fully understand the impact of the new law. But he’s willing to say it’s not good.
“I pretty much anticipated this … there was too much greed involved,” he said. “They didn’t want to do it right, they wanted to control it. They restricted the ability of patients to supply themselves,” Pharr said. In the end, “This will put the patients back out on the street.”