Selling Just What Doctor Can't Order -- Trial To Test Backers Of Marijuana As Medicine

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND - The medicine helped Joanna McKee so much, she thought she would share with others.

Soon, she and her partner were packing their potion into pill bottles labeled "Green Cross Patient Co-op" and distributing them to a network of people with AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

But when the police raided the trailer McKee shares with her partner, what they saw didn't remind them of a pharmacy.

There, amid bumper stickers demanding "DARE to keep the CIA off drugs" and "Question Authority," they found more than 160 marijuana plants. It was, said Bainbridge Police Chief John Sutton, the biggest bust in memory on the island.

It was also the first bust in the country of a marijuana "buyer's club," a growing cottage industry engaged in supplying marijuana to patients, says Allen St. Pierre, deputy national director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

At least 25 other clubs, including one in San Francisco with 4,300 members, have operated for years virtually ignored by law enforcement.

Patients say marijuana is leafy green relief for a variety of ills, including nausea produced by chemotherapy, lack of appetite from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, muscle spasms from MS and eye pressure from glaucoma.

Sutton, designated spokesman for WESTNET, the multijurisdiction West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team, says he has sympathy for those who say marijuana helps their ills. But he has no apologies for the bust.

"What they're doing is in violation of the law," he says. "We've never had any kind of policy other than `Marijuana is illegal.' "

At odds with law enforcement

It's easy to see how the soldiers in the war on drugs could view McKee and her partner, Ronald "Stitch" Miller, as the enemy.

Clad in a tie-dyed T-shirt, a patch covering one eye, McKee pushes a view that doesn't set well with law enforcement.

"There are people who are starving to death because they can't get the medicine they need," she says, referring to the loss of appetite that is common with chemotherapy and AIDS. "There's nothing in science that works as good as the munchies."

The pressure to allow marijuana use for medical reasons, say those who gauge it, is building.

Some of that may be a result of the increasing number of AIDS patients, and some may simply be a matter of demographics, suggests St. Pierre. Many of those who are now getting AIDS, cancer, MS and glaucoma - or helping their parents cope with those diseases - are baby boomers who once giggled hysterically at the dark view of marijuana depicted in the movie "Reefer Madness."

Last year, McKee asked the Bainbridge Island City Council to allow medical marijuana use by residents. She was thinking of San Francisco, where the board of supervisors had ordered police to give lowest priority to medical marijuana use.

But the council decided only such authorities as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, should make such a decision, Sutton says. That left marijuana, listed along with heroin on a DEA schedule of drugs that can't be prescribed, no more legal than before.

Under the law, growing a single plant is labeled "manufacturing," with the presumption of intent to deliver, and is a felony.

They're not getting rich

McKee and Miller bristle at any suggestion that they are getting rich through Green Cross. Patients who can pay, do - a fraction of the street price - but those who can't pay get the marijuana free: seven grams delivered in pill bottles adorned with a medical caduceus topped by a marijuana leaf.

They say that they sell only to patients and that they make sure each patient has a note signed by a doctor. On their preferred form, the doctor notes the patient's medical condition and agrees to monitor marijuana use.

Some doctors, especially those whose patients have AIDS or cancer, say they would prescribe marijuana if they were allowed to.

But none of the big medical societies or organizations has advocated marijuana as medicine, argues Bruce Stubbs, DEA spokesman in Seattle.

"There is no valid mainstream medical evidence that supports the contention that marijuana or THC (its active ingredient) has medical benefits that cannot be achieved by using other drugs that are legal," Stubbs says.

That's because the government, the only source of legal marijuana, won't allow research studies to be done, says Dr. Lester Grinspoon, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of two books on marijuana.

"All the evidence is anecdotal," says Grinspoon. "The only reason it's anecdotal is that the government has been obstructing the research that should have been done 20 years ago."

But the anecdotal evidence, Grinspoon says, overwhelmingly shows that marijuana can help many physical problems. "Marijuana should be an available medicine now," he says.

Ralph Seeley, a Tacoma attorney, couldn't agree more.

His point of view took shape a few years ago at University of Washington Medical Center after a round of chemotherapy for bone cancer.

People call the side effects of chemotherapy "nausea," but Seeley says there ought to be another word. "It's violent, horrifyingly depressing. It makes you just want to die. You don't want to live through it."

Problems with synthetic version

Seeley says he was prescribed Marinol, which contains a synthetic version of marijuana's THC, to control his vomiting.

Taken far enough ahead of time, the pill works, he says. "But it makes you very high for a very long time. You take a tablet at 10 a.m., at noon the next day, you're still losing arguments with the doorknob."

And the Marinol pill was usually useless once his nausea had begun.

"What I discovered is if I relied on legal medication, I would be very sick for a very long time and watch a lot of $3.11 tablets disappear down the toilet. And if I got one down, I'd ruin the next day, be so damned stoned I couldn't function. But if I smoked marijuana, five or 10 minutes later, I'm done. I'm fine."

Seeley, a self-described "straight guy" who studied police science and joined the Navy after high school, wasn't a regular marijuana smoker before he got cancer. Since his cancer, he's received marijuana through Green Cross.

Seeley's doctor, Ernest Conrad, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in cancer patients, says despite reservations about marijuana's effects on Seeley's respiratory system, he would prescribe it if he could. "I don't personally feel like withholding that from him," says Conrad. "It's a matter of what you think is reasonable for a terminal patient."

Deborah Koda, a Bainbridge resident, says she receives marijuana free from Green Cross for her 56-year-old mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Many other drugs had debilitating side effects or just didn't help as much as marijuana does, she adds.

If it weren't for Green Cross, Koda says, she'd have to buy marijuana on the street, where it would cost a lot more and might contain dangerous additives.

She is speaking out, she says, because she feels it's crazy to threaten sick people with jail. "I have great respect for the law," says Koda, whose husband is an attorney. "But it's time to take a stand and say the law has to be changed."

McKee, who uses a wheelchair to travel any distances more than a few feet, says she smokes marijuana herself for help with muscle spasms, migraines and epilepsy from head and back injuries. About two years ago, she was growing her own and had a little extra.

"I'd heard about AIDS patients," she says. "I thought I could share."

Holly McNeill, case manager for the Kitsap County Health District HIV-AIDS Program, says she has referred AIDS patients to Green Cross.

"I don't condone it. I don't judge it," she says. "I just let people know if they ask about it that there is a way for them to get it, if they want to."

`Their job is to put people in jail'

The way many patients see it, the government is insisting that they suffer. "They're cops," says Seeley. "They don't know anything about medicine or suffering. Their job is to put people in jail."

Law-enforcement agencies aren't targeting small amounts of marijuana, says the DEA's Stubbs. "But it is illegal, and if we stumble across it, we're bound to take action."

Last week, a bill passed the California Assembly exempting patients with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and MS from laws prohibiting marijuana cultivation and possession. But it faces tougher opposition in the Senate, and is likely to be vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

In this state, Seeley has filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court contending that the statute placing marijuana on the schedule of unprescribable drugs violates the state's constitution.

"I think it's an issue like segregation, like women's rights," Seeley says. "Ultimately, society will come to its senses and realize this (prohibition) is irrational and destructive, and do away with it."

But that may take some time, he concedes. Meanwhile, McKee and Miller will go to trial in July, facing felony charges for manufacturing a controlled substance. Law enforcement may see them as just another couple of dope traffickers, but that's not Seeley's view.

"I think they're heroes," he says. "These people are risking their freedom for helping other people."