Medical marijuana issue back on center stage in Colorado |

Medical marijuana issue back on center stage in Colorado

Judi Villa
Rocky Mountain News
Colorado Springs, CO Colorado
Barry Gutierrez/Rocky Mountain NewsBernie Williams, 31, checks on a marijuana plant at the Patient Activity and Resource Center, where patients who use medical marijuana come to hang out and connect with others in the community in Colorado Springs.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado ” Alan Gallegos crushed a pinch of marijuana into a vaporizer, then slowly inhaled through a tube.

The marijuana vapor eases the pain from bone spurs in Gallegos’ back, quells his nausea and levels out the mood swings from his bipolar disorder.

“It’s worked better than any pill I’ve ever taken,” Gallegos said. “I’ve been a lot better ever since.”

Nine years after Colorado voters approved the use of medical marijuana for patients like Gallegos who suffer from debilitating medical conditions, the issue has again taken center stage. The state is seeking to crack down on caregiver/patient ratios at the same time federal officials are debating whether to continue raiding med-pot dispensaries in states that allow them.

Against that backdrop are the numbers: Colorado’s medical marijuana registry has swelled to nearly 5,000 patients. In just the last year, the number of patients registering to use the drug more than doubled.

State officials say they are seeing more cases of forgery within the registry system, and they are concerned that some caregivers who are supposed to have “significant responsibility” for patients now are juggling more than 200 people.

“I’m not sure how they can do that, even with the best of intentions,” said Ron Hyman, the state’s registrar of vital statistics.

But advocates of medical marijuana say patients truly need it and changing the rules will only force them onto the streets, where they could be attacked while trying to purchase the drug illicitly.

“There’s a lot of people in wheelchairs. There’s people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy. These are ill people,” said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a nonprofit working on behalf of medical marijuana patients. “It’s so upsetting to us that they found a safe way to get medicine and the state’s trying to prevent them from doing so.”

Gallegos, 33, joined the medical marijuana registry about six months ago, after he says a bad combination of prescription drugs caused a psychotic episode. Bipolar and prone to high anxiety and vast mood swings, Gallegos said he was punching walls and falling down. His girlfriend was so frightened that she left. He doesn’t remember any of it.

Marijuana, he said, “is not mind-altering at all. It keeps me level without being high. I’m a lot happier person.”

So is Ashley Vanderwalker. She has lupus and scoliosis and there are titanium rods in her back. She says she deals with “a lot of pain.”

Mornings, in particular, can be excruciating.

But pain pills left Vanderwalker, 24, nauseous, lethargic and unable to run after her 17-month-old son.

After buying marijuana from friends or off the streets and not being able to count on the quality, Vanderwalker got on the medical marijuana registry and began purchasing the drug at Cannabis Therapeutics, a dispensary in Colorado Springs. There, she doesn’t have to buy weed. She can get her daily dose of medication through bubble bath, shampoo, even baked goods that all have cannabis in them.

THC oil can be extracted from marijuana plants and mixed with virtually anything. THC is the main active chemical in marijuana.

“Instead of having to take a pain pill or anything like that, I can eat a brownie, and I can feel relief,” Vanderwalker said. “To me that seems better. … I go clean my house. I have my dinner made when my husband gets home. I can get things done. I’m very functional. I’m not just sitting on the couch.”

Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 in November 2000, allowing the use of marijuana for certain debilitating medical conditions ” including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and severe pain and nausea. The law took effect in 2001. Patients who are approved for medical marijuana use and their designated caregivers register with the state and can possess up to 2 ounces of the drug and up to six marijuana plants.

Since 2004, the number of patients applying to the registry has jumped an astounding 800 percent, from 512 to 4,693 last year.

Steve Fanning, 38, is among those registering. He’s had two heart transplants and the medications prescribed by doctors caused his bones to deteriorate. Fanning says he is in “constant, daily” pain, and marijuana makes it “a little better.”

He’s been able to drop his daily dose of OxyContin, a pain-killer, from as many as 100 milligrams to just 10 milligrams. With the marijuana, he can get out of bed in the morning, eat and sometimes even work out a little bit before he needs a nap at noon.

Fanning inhales vaporized marijuana and sometimes eats brownies or cookies laced with cannabis.

“It’s just pain relief,” he said. “I couldn’t function without it.”

Users say marijuana is a natural alternative to prescription medications that can cause liver damage and addiction with prolonged, extensive use.

At Cannabis Therapeutics, medical marijuana patients can buy everything from shampoo and body wash to candy, baked goods and pasta.

“You name it, we make it,” said Michael Lee, who owns Cannabis Therapeutics and uses medical marijuana to alleviate muscle spasms from a 1982 accident that fractured his back in five places and left him clinically dead for 41 minutes.

“Patients can do anything they want, in any which way they want to medicate,” Lee said. ” So this is not about smoking it.”

Only 14 states allow the use of medical marijuana, and even in state that have it, the topic remains controversial.

The state laws are at odds with federal interests, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents have continued to raid medical marijuana shops in states that permit them. Dispensaries are still illegal under federal law.

DEA officials in Denver refused to comment about their enforcement practices or disclose when they last raided a dispensary here. There are about a dozen dispensaries in Colorado.

But in Los Angeles, where five dispensaries have been raided since Jan. 22, DEA agents have conducted 30 or 40 similar raids in the past several years, according to The Washington Times.

The White House has said it expects those kinds of raids to end once President Barack Obama nominates someone to take charge of DEA, the newspaper reported. Obama has said he does not support using federal resources to circumvent state laws.

In Colorado, the ongoing debate extends to proposals to tighten medical marijuana regulations.

Most controversial is a plan to limit caregivers to five patients. The same rule was tossed out by a judge in 2007, partly because there was no public hearing. This time, the state Board of Health will hold a hearing on March 18. The Board also will discuss plans to require all signatures to be notarized.

“We want to make sure we put prudent steps in place to avoid abuse of this program,” Ron Hyman said. “Our goal is to ensure that the patients receive the care that they deserve and that we put in place structures that can enhance that.”

“My response to that would be can Walgreens assist more than 200 people,” Vicente said. “If you are providing medicine to an individual, do you cap the amount of people that Walgreens can help? Do you cap the number of people that a cancer doctor can assist and say you can’t help more than five? It’s just irrational.”

Lee, who opened Cannabis Therapeutics in Colorado Springs about four years ago and will say only that he has “a lot” of patients, disputes insinuations that he cannot provide significant care for hundreds of patients.

In a Colorado Springs strip mall, Lee has opened the nation’s first Patient Activity and Resource Center. There, medical marijuana users can meet to shoot pool, throw darts and watch movies. Patients can’t smoke at the center but they can inhale vaporized marijuana. The center offers free massages, free yoga and free food every day. A nurse runs the facility.

“We provide everything we can for our patients,” Lee said.

Josh Cvek, 24, stopped by the center this week after purchasing marijuana and banana bread at the dispensary.

He has “horrible migraines” after breaking his neck in a motorcycle wreck four years ago and Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory disease of the digestive tract.

“I couldn’t even walk without pain,” Cvek said.

Then he discovered medical marijuana. Cvek can’t play football or baseball anymore but he can hold down a job.

“Honestly, if it weren’t for (marijuana), I’d probably be in jail. I feel like I’d snap or something,” Cvek said. “It’s made living a lot better. … I wouldn’t be nearly as happy if I didn’t have it.”

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