When Dan Pope gets up each morning, he grabs his vaporizer, packs it with high-grade marijuana and inhales a few times. His intoxicating routine is a necessary part of getting him up on the right side of the bed, so to speak. At three other times during the day he repeats his regimented pot use. Yet Pope isn’t exactly your typical pothead. Far from it, actually. The unassuming Longmont resident suffers from muscular dystrophy, and three years ago, his doctor recommended he start using medical marijuana.
Since that day, Pope says his life has improved dramatically. If you catch him in the morning, you’ll run into a happy-go-lucky guy leisurely sipping coffee at the local java joint.
He’s a regular at Ziggy’s on Main Street, a typical 42-year-old who will talk your ear off about the day’s news and give a friendly hello to a few of the other regulars as he sips on a big cup of Joe.
He can thank the marijuana, which offers him a natural way to loosen his muscles and relieve pain, something he battles regularly as part of his condition. Otherwise, he’d be relegated to heavy pharmaceuticals such as Vicodin to make the pain bearable.
It’s his way of life, but you’d never suspect that he was a regular pot smoker by the looks of it. He doesn’t wear tie-dye nor does talk with a stoners’ drawl. And you’d likely not guess he has a debilitating disease unless you watch him particularly closely as he walks away. Again, he thanks his “medicine” for helping him live an almost regular life.
“Medical marijuana patients don’t fit the stereotypes of the typical marijuana user,” he says.
Of late, Pope’s become somewhat of an activist for medical marijuana, something he plans to continue until he is literally no longer able to stand on his soapbox. There are plenty of issues with the system in Colorado to keep Pope busy so long as he’s able.
When the people took the medical marijuana initiative to voters in the fall of 2000, they wrote the law on the conservative side to help usher the controversial legalizing of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Seven years later, patients are left with well-intentioned policy that often falls significantly short of expectations.
“It’s not a bad law, but it’s clearly imperfect,” says Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a group that supports medical marijuana use.
Under the law, patients with chronic diseases such as cancer, AIDS and glaucoma can apply for a permit, which is good for one year. If approved, they are allowed to hold two ounces of marijuana or grow up to six plants. Patients can assign a caregiver to grow or get their pot under the same guidelines.
But the state gives limited resources for information beyond that. And the emphasis really is on limited. Colorado officials can tell you what the law says and where you can find the required documents needed to apply for a medical marijuana permit. If you’re lucky, they may even hand over a Bic to fill out the paperwork—the law prohibits them from doing more.
Details such as which doctors are willing to recommend pot as medicine—it’s technically not a prescription—and how to safely find safe medical-grade marijuana are extremely difficult to track down.
“How can they access it safely?” Vicente says. “It’s hard for them to find it. It’s not easy to grow. There are no classes.”
ope had been an occasional pot smoker prior to his MD diagnosis, so it wasn’t necessarily a difficult endeavor to find someone to get him his “medicine.”
Others aren’t so lucky. The worst-case scenario is a chronically disabled person forced to troll seedy neighborhoods in search of some pot that may end up being “dirt weed” with little medicinal value.
“The last thing sick people need is to feel like they are breaking the law,” Pope says.
But because of gray areas between federal and state jurisdiction, all parties involved in medical marijuana transactions face possible legal retaliation.
“Federally, it’s not recognized,” says Steve Prentup, commander of the Boulder County Drug Task Force. “You basically have a contradiction.”
Boulder County drug officials follow state mandate, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. Since the medical marijuana registry is confidential, local drug agents have no idea that drug sellers, growers and users they stake out are acting within the law until after a drug bust has happened and a permit is flashed.
When these busts go down, plants can be destroyed, and expensive legal battles can follow. While the law allows for six plants, there’s wording in it that says if you can prove you need more, that’s fine, too. That kind of judgment doesn’t come out until court, however.
Vicente hears all about this and other issues. He says his organization gets 10 or so calls a week from people with concerns and questions about the policy. He even receives regular inquiries from the elderly asking how to get a hold of their medicine. There’s no easy answer.
“Lil’ old ladies call from Steamboat, their doctor recommends (medical marijuana), what are they going to do?” says Vicente, an attorney who spends half his time fighting for medical marijuana reform, the rest of his time working for U.S. drug policy changes.
Most will tell you the best way to solve this access problem in Colorado is to encourage legal marijuana dispensaries. These businesses can carry and grow the legal amount of medical marijuana for patients who deem them their caregiver. (If 100 patients have assigned a dispensary as their caregiver, it can grow 600 plants or hold two ounces per patient.)
Paying taxes and registering with the government as a legal business becomes a catch 22 situation, says Warren Edson, an attorney who represents CT LLC, a Colorado Springs dispensary. Federal law doesn’t recognize state medical marijuana rules. So it’s legal in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean legitimate marijuana vendors are safe from Drug Enforcement Agency prosecution. In California, raids on medical marijuana dispensaries are frequent.
“There’s a lot of things we could do if we felt safer about the Feds not kicking in our door,” Edson says. “The more legitimate you become, the more you’re out there.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll get somebody in the White House that sees how stupid this is.”
This fear resonates. There are exactly four legit marijuana dispensaries in Colorado for nearly 1,500 patients. One is in Colorado Springs, two in Denver and one in Fort Collins. Getting information on them is as difficult as wading through federal versus state jurisdiction issues.
For sick patients, finding the marijuana is only one part of an entirely problematic process. Though a physician has never been arrested for recommending medical marijuana, it is extremely difficult to find one willing to do so in Colorado.
The state admits such: “No physicians have experienced federal reprisals,” Colorado’s website states. “However, reluctance to participate due to the inconsistencies between state and federal marijuana laws have been expressed by doctors…” In the FAQs section, the information offered by Colorado is almost non-existent: “Can you refer me to a doctor?”
“No. It is the responsibility of the patient to work with a physician with whom he/she has a bona fide doctor-patient relationship.”
So if that patient has a relationship with a doctor not willing to go the medical pot route, which often seems the case, then it’s back to square one.
“Doctors are definitely wary,” says Brian Schreckinger of the THC Foundation in Wheat Ridge. The foundation has a doctor willing to sign the medical marijuana paperwork if legitimate documentation of a debilitating disease that qualifies under Colorado law is presented.
It seems as though until the national landscape changes, medical marijuana supporters will be hard-pressed to make huge gains toward acceptance in Colorado. Pope says it’s a simple matter of allowing significant studies to take place to prove the drug’s merit.
For more than six years, Professor Lyle Craker at the University of Massachusetts has lobbied to obtain a DEA license to manufacture marijuana exclusively for privately-funded, federally-approved research. Craker’s case is the focal point of the struggle to bring medical marijuana before the FDA to determine whether it meets the agencies standards for safety and efficacy. Earlier this year, a judge recommended approval—the DEA still has to weigh in. Pope has sent letters to Colorado’s representatives in the last two months to urge their support. He’s heard nothing back.
“What hurts in letting somebody study something?” he asks.
He is hopeful that the climate will change eventually, but in the meantime he knows first hand the benefits. The pot helps his muscles relax, which lets him get through most days with little pain. “Mornings are always my best time,” he says. “As my muscles deteriorate, it gets worse. It’s a chronic pain issue.”
There’s also some evidence that his pot regiment has slowed the MD from devastating his body, and he’s hopeful he can buck the doctors’ predictions that he’ll be wheelchair bound by his 50th birthday. An even more promising sign is the complete reversal of the symptoms of myotonia, a previously thought irreversible condition in which muscles don’t relax.
“Now it’s gone; it’s baffling my doctors,” Pope says. The medical marijuana treatment is the assumed reason for the condition leaving, and Pope’s doctor would love to begin case studies on it.
To date, 13 states have policy allowing for medicinal pot use. California’s is the widest reaching. There are literally hundreds of storefront pot shops, patients claiming anxiety can get a permit, and the area’s alternative newspapers are littered with advertisements touting doctors willing to write recommendations for a quick buck. Colorado’s law is much more restrictive, to the point that Vicente says the system is almost impossible to abuse.
“I haven’t heard of doctors doing it wrong,” he says. “The issue is not enough doctors are writing recommendations. They are afraid of getting prosecuted.”
He wants doctors and patients to feel more comfortable with the policy at hand, so he is promoting more support groups and working as an educator.
For now, it appears too risky for U.S. politicians to champion for this cause—it’s along the same lines of trumpeting gay marriage. So dozens of organizations are working at the state level to pass laws legalizing medical marijuana with the hope that it becomes such a momentous effort that the federal lawmakers will be forced into accepting it. “The public is ahead of the lawmakers,” Vicente says. “They have to catch up. In time, we’ll win this out. The Fed is the old guard; they are unwilling to bend. Once enough states adopt it, they are going to have to change.”
Until that happens, Colorado residents are essentially stuck with the program they have. The wish list of fixes include adding stipulations that would require the state give out more information, streamlining processes for permit applications, putting safeguards to ensure the safety of dispensaries, and revisiting possession limits. But since the law is a constitutional amendment, any changes would have to be put to a statewide vote, which is never an easy task.
While waiting for national reform, medical marijuana users, growers and sellers are stuck straddling that fine line between legal medical use and class four felony convictions. “As long as marijuana is illegal, I have to watch out,” Pope says.