Cliff Chadwell didn't think he was doing anything wrong. The Spokane Valley resident has been suffering from multiple sclerosis, and since 2000 he's been smoking marijuana to alleviate the pain and the muscles spasms that tear through his legs on a regular basis. He was growing his own marijuana plants -- he had six altogether -- when the Sheriff's Department knocked on his door in March 2002. The plants were seized, and Chadwell was left with the impression that that was the end of that.
He was wrong.
"I told them the truth when they asked me if I was growing," says Chadwell, who's now in a wheelchair. "I was real friendly and forthcoming, and they went down and tore up the plants. I didn't think I was in that much trouble, but a year and a half later I got a letter in the mail saying I was charged with manufacturing a controlled substance, possession, the whole bit. I was very surprised."
Chadwell says he had a prescription that was written out by a neurologist from the VA Hospital.
"From what I understand, I'm being prosecuted because I had more than 40 grams of marijuana," says Chadwell, who served in Vietnam. "And I didn't have the authorization that I needed. I thought the prescription from the VA fulfilled all the paperwork, but I guess I was wrong."
So now Chadwell is going to see a judge; his next hearing is scheduled for March 15 in Superior Court.
"I'll own up to a misdemeanor if I made a mistake with the paperwork, but they are charging me with a felony and I'm not a criminal," he says. "I don't want to go to jail. A felony means you can't vote and they take your DNA for their files. It's serious business. I just don't think I deserve that."
It's legal to grow medical marijuana in Washington state.
Voters passed Initiative 692 in the fall of 1998, creating
the Washington State Medical Marijuana Act (MMA). But the MMA leaves many questions unanswered, and that's where people like Chadwell can get caught in the machinery.
Whether smoked or eaten, marijuana has been used for generations against nausea, to increase appetite, to alleviate pain and to control muscle spasms and seizures. The problem is, of course, that marijuana remains a controlled substance, so using and dealing or trading it is illegal. Another issue is that the MMA allows for a patient to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana, but it doesn't say anything about how much that is, which leaves a crucial point open to interpretation by local law enforcement.
Patients who wish to use marijuana for their specific symptoms must be 18, and they have to start out by seeing their primary care physician.
"A Washington state licensed physician has to determine that the patient has either a terminal or debilitating disease," says Lt. Chan Bailey, who's in charge of the Sheriff's Department's drug unit. "They have to provide documentation from that physician that they have discussed the pros and cons of marijuana use, and that the patient may benefit from using medical marijuana." Bailey adds that this wording has just recently been changed by the courts, so now it should say that the patient "likely" benefits from medical marijuana.
"At the same time, it was also ruled that the doctor should say how much marijuana the patient would need," says Bailey. "That makes it easy for me when we come out, because that puts the responsibility on the doctor."
Patients use varying amounts of marijuana depending on their symptoms and the various stages of the diseases they are seeking relief from.
"I have lupus, and I used to be on steroids and chemo medications and immune suppressive drugs that made me so sick," says Lori, who doesn't want to use her last name. "It got to a point where I felt like I was more sick from the medication than from the disease. A friend in Tacoma gave me medical marijuana to try, and all of a sudden I had my appetite back. I got rid of all the medication, just flushed it out, and I've been using marijuana ever since." Lori says she uses two to three grams a day.
"I can't go a day without it," she says.
Darren McCrea suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and he's had a similar experience.
"I started smoking a year and a half ago, dropped all the medication and I'm feeling great," he says. "I smoke between 1.5 and three grams a day."
The street value of marijuana is roughly $40 for one-eighth of an ounce, which is about 3.5 grams. And regardless of how many authorizations and notes a patient has, it's still illegal to buy, sell or trade a controlled substance.
That's why most medical marijuana patients grow their own plants. The problem is the MMA fails to spell out how many plants a patient can grow.
"We go by the 60-day supply," says the Sheriff's Department's Bailey, "but it's on a case-by-case basis. A ballpark figure would be that one ounce a week is more than enough for anyone, but I must stress that that's not a standard. That's based on information we've gotten from other counties and how they do things."
McCrea, who's also the president of Cannabis Health Northwest, says he has plans for opening a storefront operation that would distribute medical marijuana to patients who need it.
"It would be like a co-op," he explains. "There would be a membership fee, but the medicine would be free. You'd of course have to have authorization, and I wouldn't let anyone leave with more than a three-day supply."
That scenario doesn't sit well with Bailey.
"The state law doesn't say you have to charge money to be booked on delivering a controlled substance," he says. "The co-op would be violating the law."
McCrea sounds pretty determined to put his plans into action, however. "We'll work it out," he says. "We are looking for financial backing and a storefront. I just want a safe place where patients can come in and have safe access and talk to other people like themselves, perhaps get a snack, perhaps do some exercise."
Clearly, there are many other issues that need to be clarified before medical marijuana becomes mainstream.
If, for instance, a patient drives while under the influence and is pulled over or involved in an accident, no amount of paperwork will absolve that person from a DUI charge. (Frequent use of marijuana will register on a blood test.)
In the meantime, the Sheriff's Department encourages open communication.
"We really like it if patients come down here and show us their paperwork, so we know who's legal," says Dave Reagan, the Sheriff's Department spokesman. "That way, when the ex-wife or the neighbor or the ex-boyfriend calls in and says someone is growing pot -- and that's how many of these things start -- we'd already know that we are looking at a grower we don't need to worry about."