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Patients using marijuana increasing


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Morphine, Vicodin, carbitrol – 18 pills on even-numbered days, 17 on odd ones, for almost 10 years.

That was all before William "Sonny" Watkins discovered medical marijuana could ease the pain from a multitude of surgeries, which have removed half of his brain and parts of his right knee.

"I should have been dead," said Watkins, whose health spiraled downward after a 1991 motorcycle crash put him in an eight-month coma.

Marijuana has decreased Watkins' dependency on synthetic drugs: He is down to one pill, twice daily, to control seizures.

"I'm in such good shape now," he said. "God put grass on this Earth."

Watkins is one of more than 10,000 medical marijuana patients in the state, a number that almost has doubled in the past year. There were 415 Marion County patient cardholders and 134 in Polk County, as of July 1.

As medical marijuana use increases and cannabis groves sprout in local neighborhoods, the complexities and shortcomings of current laws continue to create discourse between patients and their caregivers, who grow the drug for them, and among state and local law enforcement officials.

Shawn Flury, 43, is the director of Independence-based Oregon Green Cross, which provides two ounces of marijuana per month to each of its 35 patients.

"Our patients are the indigent of the indigent," Flury said.

Clackamas County Sheriff's officers confiscated all of the group's 110 plants in May for suspected violations.

Flury immediately replanted their garden.

"Our patients cannot afford to be without medicine," he said.

Flury still is awaiting the official charges against him and Clackamas County Sheriff's office would not comment.

In Salem, the Community Response Team comes across one case of possible medical marijuana violations every week, in a conservative estimate, said officer Marty Miranda of the eight-investigator unit.

As recently as last month, the team discovered that a North Salem resident had been growing 76 plants more than allowed by his Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card.

He claimed to be following physician recommendations that his four patients required more than the limit, said Sgt. Russ Isham, head of Community Response.

The North Salem caregiver was charged with manufacture of a controlled substance. Officers seized and destroyed his excess plants.

Local law enforcement officials primarily are concerned with patients and caregivers growing in excess, attempting to manipulate the system and receiving illegal compensation for services.

"As people become more and more educated about what's legal and not legal, it makes it more complex for us," Miranda said.

Legal loose ends

Oregon's medical-marijuana law, in effect for six years, does not restrict the number of patients a caregiver can have.

Patients only need to designate a primary caregiver and provide the medical marijuana grow-site address, said Mary Leverette, OMMP acting program manager.

For every patient, a caregiver can grow up to seven plants.

"It's not uncommon to find a caregiver with at least five patients," Miranda said.

The largest grow site in the state is producing medical marijuana for 16 patients, according to OMMP data.

Multiple grow sites are necessary because the state offers no help, said Watkins, who has co-founded the Salem-based Medical Cannabis Resource Center, also known as MERCY, to help other patients.

He claims that MERCY has networked a couple of thousand patients over the years, including some from Washington and California who had Oregon licenses.

"There's that many patients, and there would be more," he said.

The rising number of patients prompts another concern for law enforcement – there are no regulations on the location of a grow site as long as it is registered.

Marijuana groves of all sizes are located throughout Salem, Miranda said. Most are indoor, however, because caregivers choose to be more private.

Adding fuel to the fire, caregivers cannot legally provide services for cash or any exchange with monetary value.

Measure 33, an OMMA revision on November's ballot, would change this by allowing compensation and creating dispensaries licensed to distribute medical marijuana to patients.

Now, unless patients pick up production costs, caregiving is a personal endeavor.

Jess Hanson, 41, a caregiver in Dallas, said he undertook the task after recognizing a patient's obstacles.

"I get nothing out of this except that I'm helping somebody," Hanson said.

Maximizing resources

"Most of the good caregivers have more than one patient," Watkins said.

Hal Ballard, a caregiver since 1999, agreed.

"There is no real network of patients, caregivers or doctors except word of mouth," said Ballard, 56, who provides for seven patients beside himself.

Patients could grow their own marijuana, but there is a higher demand for caregivers because production can be costly and difficult, Watkins said.

Caregivers say the initial price of a seven-plant garden is at least $1,000.

Outdoor grows can yield one major crop per year, but plants may encounter damaging insects and diseases.

Indoor grows, the preferred alternative, involve high energy costs year-round for the lighting.

"It's more cost-effective with more patients," Ballard said.

The debilitating medical conditions that qualify patients for cards also can prevent them from growing.

"A caregiver is more physically able to do it," said Madeline Martinez, executive director of the Portland-based Oregon National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Neighborly matters

Martinez thinks medical marijuana needs to gain mainstream acceptance.

"We're your neighbors," she said. "We're not trying to be shady."

Watkins shares similar sentiments.

"The isn't about getting high," he said. "The people who are sick, they're trying to have a quality of life that nobody would understand."

Some Salem residents have expressed concern about drug use in their neighborhoods, but they also reflect a sympathy for medical marijuana patients.

Kim Spalding, 49, is not opposed to medical use.

"Abuse of drugs is the concern, not the drugs," he said.

Marvin Anderson, 58, also agreed.

"Pot is part of the culture," Anderson said.

"My concern is if some person needs it, I'd hate to see somebody else screw it up."

Statesman Journal
August 20, 2004
Copyright 2004 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon
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