Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jan 2010
Source: Mail Tribune, The (Medford, OR)
Copyright: 2010 The Mail Tribune
Note: Only prints LTEs from within it's circulation area, 200 word count limit
Author: Damian Mann, Mail Tribune
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


While Debate Over Medical Marijuana Continues, Jackson County Sees And
Increase In Cardholders

Next to the federal courthouse in downtown Medford, medical marijuana
patients pass in and out of a nondescript building where cannabis is
smoked, grown and exchanged between patients.

In the lobby, something that looks like driftwood sits on a desk. It's
the stump from a massive marijuana plant that produced 16 pounds of
dried bud in a growing climate that many growers say rivals Northern

It's no accident that Southern Oregon NORML moved into these offices,
where its volunteers have windows that overlook the courthouse parking
lot used by judges and sheriff's deputies unloading prisoners for trials.

"The fact that the federal courthouse was here is the icing on the
cake," said Mel Barniskis, information manager.

SO NORML is one of eight businesses that have sprung up in the Rogue
Valley in the past two years to help patients with the complicated
process of getting a medical marijuana card and connecting with a
grower who can provide the medication allowed under the Oregon Medical
Marijuana Act of 1998. In 2006, Senate Bill 1085 increased the number
of plants and quantity of dried marijuana a patient could possess to
six mature plants, 18 immature seedlings and 24 ounces of usable cannabis.

Cannabis advocates hope setting up SO NORML's operation next to a
courthouse sends a message that the medical benefits of marijuana are
more widely embraced, laws are relaxing and the stereotype of "Reefer
Madness" is fading away.

Jackson County has the third-highest number of medical marijuana
cardholders of the 36 counties in the state at 2,931, according to the
latest figures from the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Both Jackson
and Josephine counties have the highest number of cardholders per
capita in the state.

Barniskis said SO NORML, where the smell of marijuana is sometimes
evident upon entering the lobby, makes every effort to follow the law
and get along with its neighbor, the federal government, which still
classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin. The federal
government in October agreed not to arrest patients who comply with
state laws allowing medical marijuana.

"We have to be operating within the law or we're the biggest idiots in
the world," Barniskis said. "We're not the biggest idiots in the world."

Marijuana-related establishments such as SO NORML are part of a
growing cottage industry allowed under Oregon's medical marijuana law.
But both advocates and opponents of medical marijuana want to change
the law, which many think is vague and lacks adequate oversight.

Marijuana proponents' goals range from fully legalizing the drug to
classifying it as a prescription medication available at drugstores.

Opponents, particularly law enforcement, want more restrictions and
regulation, saying current laws open the door to more cannabis
production, which they fear will lead more people into a world of drugs.

Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George said lax marijuana laws have
led to a boost in pot seizures.

His drug unit confiscated 5 pounds of dried marijuana in 2008 and 108
pounds in 2009. "We expect our numbers to be off the charts in 2010,"
he said.

George criticized current laws that allow a cardholder to possess up
to 24 plants and 24 ounces of processed marijuana, the most of the 14
states that have medical marijuana laws.

Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen said marijuana clinics such as SO
NORML generate very few complaints, but if problems arise he will
consult with the Jackson County District Attorney's Office to help
determine whether they are operating within the law.

He said he would wait until a specific case arises before commenting
on the legality of these operations. "We have our opinions whether it
is legal or not," said Schoen.

In addition to SO NORML and three others in Medford, medical marijuana
clinics have opened in Ashland, Rogue River and Grants Pass. Not all
have been without incident.

Brenda Thomas, manager of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation in Grants
Pass, was arrested in November after law enforcement agents alleged
she and others had 200 pounds of marijuana.

SO NORML's offices are just a few blocks from the Medford police
station, and Barniskis said she and the rest of the staff welcome the
police and anyone else who wants to take a look at their operation.

Far in the back of the building, SO NORML has a smoking lounge for
people with medical marijuana cards, who can exchange marijuana to
find out which strain provides the best treatment for a variety of
medical problems. This is one of the few areas that are off-limits to
the general public.

She said the operation is self-policing, booting out any member who
tries to sell marijuana or does anything that conflicts with the law.
About 350 members pay a $100 annual fee, or $35 if they are considered
low-income. Some 250 growers are part of the organization, many of
whom also have medical marijuana cards.

Sometimes problems do arise, she said. A grower might tell a patient
that the plants got ripped off, only to turn around and sell the
marijuana for top dollar on the black market.

"You're always going to have somebody abusing the system," Barniskis
said. "We as an organization are attempting to weed that out as much
as possible."

Local police agencies have been cracking down on medical marijuana
growers who exceed the limit allowed by law. On Monday, a marijuana
grow site was raided in Gold Hill for allegedly containing 80 pounds
of processed marijuana, far more than the legal limit of 12 pounds for
the site, which had two registered growers. Police arrested Tommie
Dean McIntosh, 37, on manufacturing, possession and distribution of
marijuana, as well as being a felon in possession of a handgun.

Medical marijuana users face other dangers, as well. On Friday night,
the Josephine County Sheriff's Department reported that two armed men
staged a home invasion robbery at the home of a Cave Junction man,
stealing his medical marijuana and leaving the man with a fractured
skull and two broken fingers.

Barniskis said law enforcement needs to better understand how pot is
smoked, ingested and grown before concluding that the six mature
plants and 18 immature plants allowed per patient are too much. Indoor
operations produce only a few ounces per plant, while outdoor grow
sites can develop several pounds of marijuana from a single plant.
Outdoor cannabis sites are subject to thievery, bug infestations and
mold that can kill a crop, she said.

A marijuana cardholder herself, Barniskis said some patients get
better relief from ailments by taking tinctures or eating marijuana,
rather than smoking it. But eating marijuana requires more plant
material to get the full medicinal benefit, she said.

Barniskis ingests about an ounce of marijuana a week to treat
neuropathy, which has caused extreme pain, swelling and bruising in
her feet. A former 9-1-1 dispatcher in Alaska, Barniskis said she's
tried traditional pain medications to no avail.

Ingesting marijuana is more preferable for Barniskis than smoking
because it doesn't produce the buzzy head high.

Patients often try different strains of marijuana to treat different
ailments. Barniskis likened choosing the right strain of marijuana to
finding the right medication for a headache. And discovering the most
effective dosage is like adjusting to high-blood-pressure medication,
she said.

Getting a medical marijuana card isn't always a certainty, Barniskis
said. SO NORML asks potential patients to look over the list of
approved health problems that can be treated with medical marijuana.
If they don't have a malady that fits, they are told they won't qualify.

"You can't get a casual pot card in Oregon," she said.

If a potential patient does appear to qualify, he is told to go back
to his regular doctor. If the regular doctor won't sign the
recommendation for the card, there are up to 24 local doctors who will
review medical history before signing the form for a fee. One Medford
clinic charges $175 for a consultation.

Rita Sullivan, director of the treatment recovery program OnTrack
Inc., said the biggest problem she has with Oregon's medical marijuana
laws is monitoring.

The marijuana laws also make the drug more available locally, she

Sullivan said prescription drugs have been a problem for those with
addictive behavior, but recent Oregon laws now mean these medications
are more closely monitored.

She said marijuana appears to be effective in certain medical
situations. The list of medical problems that can be treated with
marijuana seems acceptable, but "severe pain" is the most common
complaint and can be the most subjective, she said.

In some instances, OnTrack clients have tried to use medical marijuana
after getting a state-issued card.

Sullivan said that in general her organization doesn't allow it
because these clients have shown a propensity for using other drugs.

"We don't want to play Russian roulette with the people who do use
drugs," she said.

On occasion, OnTrack has allowed clients who have advanced AIDS to use
marijuana if they are very ill, but it is a very uncomfortable
decision for her organization. "It puts these people in a tough spot,"
she said.

Mark Huddleston, Jackson County district attorney, said he hasn't
received any criminal cases so far involving clinics or businesses
related to medical marijuana in this county.

He believes most people involved in Oregon's marijuana program are
following the law, though he thinks the way it is written invites
abuse and doesn't have enough monitoring.

"Enforcement is difficult under the medical marijuana act," he said.
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