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High time for marijuana

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After five years on the books, Oregon's ground-breaking medical marijuana
law is experiencing a boom.

A recent round of favorable federal court rulings appears to have prompted
more ailing Oregonians to seek state-issued cards allowing them to smoke,
grow and possess marijuana and at the same time emboldened more doctors to
endorse the practice. "It's all adding up to just a tremendous amount of
growth in the program," said John Sajo, director of Voter Power, a
Portland-based medical marijuana advocacy group.

From Oct. 20 to Jan. 2, the number of people holding the cards jumped from
6,040 to 7,584, a 25 percent increase, state records show.

Sajo said that figure may be low because of a backlog of applicants in the

Since February 2003, the number of cardholders has increased by two-thirds.

Lane County ranks second in the state with 763 cardholders, trailing only
Multnomah County, home to 1,043 cardholders.

Another 4,601 Oregonians have registered as caregivers, which means they
have some responsibility for a patient's well-being, including growing
marijuana for them.

Oregon's law, passed by voters in 1998 and enacted in 1999, allows people
with a specified illness to use and grow small amounts of marijuana without
fear of prosecution as long as a doctor says it might help their condition.
Qualified patients pay an annual $150 fee to the state - $50 for people on
disability or the Oregon Health Plan.

As the number of patients has increased in Oregon, the number of doctors
authorizing cards has increased as well, though not as dramatically. Since
October, the number of doctors in the program has risen 5 percent, from
1,223 to 1,280.

At least five doctors have each signed more than 100 registry applications,
said Mary Leverette, acting manager of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

Recent court rulings appear to have made more doctors willing to sign
applications, at least based on the number of phone calls to the Oregon
Medical Association, said Jim Kronenberg, the group's associate executive

Nine states have passed laws permitting people to use marijuana for medical
purposes. The state laws conflict with federal statutes, which classify
marijuana as an illegal drug with no legitimate medical purpose.

A slew of court cases has pitted federal authorities against medical
marijuana advocates, and in recent rulings, federal judges are siding with
the states.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
ruling that federal drug agents couldn't punish doctors for recommending
medical marijuana to their ill patients. The appeals court ruled that the
federal government had no authority to interfere with the right of
physicians to speak candidly with their patients.

Last month, a 9th Circuit panel ruled that it was unconstitutional for
federal drug agents to prosecute medical marijuana patients in states with
laws that allow the practice. The case is expected to be appealed to the
Supreme Court.

More cases in the federal court system are expected to be decided this year.

Even before the court rulings, one Oregon doctor stood out for his
willingness to recommend medical marijuana: Dr. Phillip Leveque, an
80-year-old semiretired osteopath from Molalla.

Leveque first made a name for himself in 2001 as the state's leading
endorser of medical marijuana, signing about 40 percent of applications.
That distinction sparked an investigation by the state Board of Medical
Examiners, which ultimately fined Leveque and suspended his medical
licenses for 90 days.

Investigators said he sometimes signed applications without examining the
patient, failed to maintain medical records and otherwise failed to meet
the state's standard of care.

Since serving his punishment, Leveque hasn't missed a beat. He works with
Voter Power as a kind of Interstate 5 circuit doctor, conducting clinics a
couple of times a week in Portland and about once a month in Eugene,
Roseburg, Grants Pass, Medford and Ashland.

Between 20 and 40 patients show up for each clinic, drawn by word of mouth
and advertisements in alternative newspapers. One such ad features a
smiling photograph of Leveque with the headlines, "Dr. Leveque says,
'Cannabis gives the best relief' " and "The doctor is in!"

Leveque and Voter Power staff members were in Eugene this week, renting out
two banquet rooms at the Red Lion Inn, where patients could come to fill
out applications and get a physical exam by a nurse-practitioner. The final
step was a consultation with Leveque, who reviewed their medical records,
asked about their medical condition, then signed their applications if they
checked out.

Leveque said he's now a stickler for following the letter of the law,
making sure patients bring their medical records and that they've been
diagnosed by a third-party physician with one of the qualifying conditions.
The conditions are: agitation related to Alzheimer's disease; cachexia, or
wasting syndrome; cancer; glaucoma; HIV and AIDS; nausea; pain; seizures;
and muscle spasms.

Leveque estimates that he has signed 4,000 applications. He said 99 percent
of the patients he sees have been using marijuana to treat their medical
condition before they ever seek a medical marijuana card.

"They decide they better get legal," he said.

Don Gilman, a 33-year-old coffee shop worker from Eugene, showed up at the
Eugene clinic to get an exam and get his application signed by Leveque. He
suffers from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, and has been using
marijuana to ease his discomfort.

"The thing I find is, it doesn't make the pain go away, but it makes it
easier to deal with," he said. "It gives you a barrier between the pain and
your life."

Photo caption: Dr. Phillip Leveque, an 80-year-old semiretired osteopath
from Molalla, waits to talk to patients at a medical marijuana clinic at
the Red Lion in Eugene this week. Leveque estimates that he has signed
4,000 applications for medical marijuana.

Source: Register-Guard, The (OR)
Copyright: 2003 The Register-Guard
Contact: rgletters@guardnet.com
Website: Breaking local news, news updates, sports, business and weather | Eugene, Oregon