By Allison Sherry
Denver Post Staff Writer
Mar. 18, 2001 - Twelve weeks before marijuana is legally recognized as a medicine for chronic pain, state officials, doctors and patients don't know how the new law will be implemented, whether there will be a federal crackdown or even how patients will get the drug.
The branch of the state health department that will deal with medicinal marijuana is not yet up and running, though state officials say it will be by June 1. And when it is, state officials say, they won't have any advice on sources for the drug.
Doctors fear they could lose their medical licenses for violating federal law, which supersedes state statute and still prohibits marijuana use.
Patients worry that with all the ambiguities, something they need and are legally prescribed will not be easily obtained.
"There's been a lot to do, that's for sure," said Cindy Parmenter, spokeswoman at the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.
As soon as voters approved Amendment 20 last November, state officials and medical advocates came together to hammer out the particulars. They closely copied how Oregon implemented its law a little over a year ago, because the statutes have similar wording.
Come June 1, the health department will issue laminated cards for $140 to those who have a written prescription from a doctor. The cards will allow patients to possess 2 ounces of pot and six plants, only three of which can be flowering.
But that's where things get sticky. A year into Oregon's program, a handful of patient advocacy groups were created to grow the marijuana. At Oregon's medicinal marijuana program, manager Kelly Paige gives out informational pamphlets to patients so they can obtain the drug.
Nothing like that exists in Colorado.
"When I opposed this initiative, a lot of it was based on the distribution," said Dr. Joel Karlin, a Lakewood allergist. "There are a lot of different impurities. Marijuana can have everything from carcinogens to fungi and bacteria. One may not know where they're getting their marijuana." Limit on plants questioned
Even in Oregon, some patientusers and medical advocates think limiting the number of plants is unfair given the finicky climate. To grow a plant indoors, a cultivator has to buy a light apparatus that runs $2,000 to $5,000, said Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon attorney general. Despite the potential cost, it's still illegal to receive any money for the drug.
Julie Roche, a political consultant who was the campaign manager for Coloradans for Medical Rights, said she's glad the law passed, even though it isn't perfect.
"I hope some of these people are worried, and they want to come forward to help people get access to (marijuana)," she said. "I think supply needs to come in at some point. People shouldn't be going out and getting it illegally, because it's really not safe."
Karlin won't prescribe the drug until the courts clear a few things up, including where the drug will come from and whether immunity from federal prosecution exists for doctors.
Based on what has happened in other states, he probably has nothing to worry about, though officials at the state Board of Medical Examiners said if someone lodged a complaint against a doctor for prescribing marijuana, they wouldn't know what to do.
"I wouldn't even want to predict what would happen," said Susan Miller, an administrator for the board. "Conviction of a federal felony is grounds for the board to take action, but it's not an automatic revocation. We're venturing into murky waters here." Feds prosecute few
At least eight states have passed medicinal marijuana laws, and only a handful of people have been prosecuted under federal law.
The people charged were accused of handing marijuana out to kids or growing it on federal land as was the case in California, according to U.S. attorneys' offices.
One duo in Los Angeles used medical marijuana as a defense when federal drug agents found 6,000 plants in their house, said Thom Marzek, spokesman for the Los Angeles district of the U.S. attorney's office.
"We're looking at large quantities. We don't prosecute guys with nickel bags on the corner," Marzek said.
That philosophy has been reiterated by Colorado's outgoing U.S. attorney, Tom Strickland, who said that although he opposed the measure, sentencing guidelines usually lead officials to prosecute those allegedly in possession of 220 pounds of drugs or more.
The law has caused horrendous headaches for California federal drug officials since its 1996 implementation. California has no licensing program to monitor who's legally allowed to use marijuana and who's not. Nor does the state have any stipulations about how much is too much for patient-users.
Ror Poliac, 44, of Denver uses marijuana to assuage pain from multiple sclerosis. He said the glaring contradiction between state and federal law makes people who rightfully deserve a prescription afraid of what could happen to them.
Poliac pleaded guilty in Arapahoe County Court in December of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. He received a $25 fine.
"It's really gray, and there is a lot of question from our side as to what's really going on," Poliac said. "At this point, it's almost like every person for themselves. And that's not really a good thing because it's not always there, sometimes it's more expensive than it should be, and there is always so much paranoia. It's not always pure, either."
State health department officials asked the legislature's Joint Budget Committee for $20,000 to start the medicinal marijuana program, and an additional $129,000 to fund it for the first year. They hope after that the $140 license fee will cover administrative costs, but they're not quite sure what to do about patients who can't pay that.
They expect about 900 people will come through the program in the first year, and close to 2,000 in the second.
"In our state, there's a lot of confusion around the law," said Neely, at the Oregon attorney general's office.
"It'd be nice to see it come to the higher courts. There could be some additional and needed clarity, which would be really nice."
A public hearing on the specifics of the medical marijuana law is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Wednesday at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive. Testimony will be taken in order of the sign-up sheet at the hearing. For more information, call 303-692-2000.
THE COLORADO LAW
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