After almost five years of constant pain and countless medications, Chet Biggerstaff was ready to give up.
Narcotics, muscle relaxants, a morphine pump and every other treatment the Richland man tried failed to blunt the extreme chronic pain he suffered from because of several car wrecks.
But in 2000, Biggerstaff stumbled upon an alternative treatment that was exactly what he’d been looking for — medical marijuana.
“I rolled up a joint, first hit — within the first 15 seconds — the nausea, the spasms disappeared,” said the 38-year-old. “None of the medicines they had me on touched it.”
Now a medical marijuana advocate, he has a vision to make the drug more accessible to other Mid-Columbia patients. He wants to establish a collective to grow and distribute the drug, but the state’s ambiguous medical marijuana law is clouding that vision.
Washington allows residents who suffer from a terminal or debilitating illness and have a written recommendation from their doctor to legally possess a 60-day supply of marijuana.
But advocates and patients say the law does nothing to remove barriers to getting safe, legal and consistent supplies of medical marijuana.
“Patients and caregivers are still caught in a Catch-22 situation which needs to change,” state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, wrote in an e-mail to the Herald. Kohl-Welles sponsored the 2007 law that defined how much marijuana patients can possess and expanded the list of medical conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana.
But, as a state Department of Health report released last year found, Washington’s lack of a clearly legal source for medical marijuana is a problem both for patients and law enforcement.
Police frustrated too
“We run into it more and more and more,” said Richland Police Chief Tony Corsi. “It’s very frustrating. The laws that we’ve passed now are very, very vague.”
Though patients are allowed to have 15 marijuana plants and 24 ounces of pot, there’s no legal way for them to get seeds, plants or ready-to-use marijuana.
“The only legally protected source is production, a term not defined in law but commonly understood to mean cultivating plants,” said the July 2008 Department of Health report.
It added: “There is no legal source for seeds or seedlings, however, making it unclear just how patients are supposed to begin a garden. This means patients must break the law to participate.”
Kennewick police Sgt. Trevor White, supervisor of the Metro Drug Task Force, said problems surrounding medical marijuana don’t come across his desk often. But he said many challenges officers used to face were remedied when the state outlined a legal definition of a 60-day supply.
“They’re either in compliance or they’re not,” he said. “A legitimate user of medical marijuana is not going to have any problems.”
Biggerstaff said a big barrier for medical marijuana patients is that many are too sick to grow their own — although state law addresses this by allowing a caregiver to grow marijuana for the patient. But many patients can’t wait the months it takes to grow their own medication, which Biggerstaff said creates a need for an immediate source like a dispensary.
Patients who can get a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana include those with chronic pain; cancer; epilepsy; acute or chronic glaucoma; hepatitis C with debilitating nausea or pain; diseases, including anorexia, which result in nausea, vomiting, wasting, appetite loss, cramping, seizures, muscle spasms or spasticity; Crohn’s disease; HIV and multiple sclerosis.
Medical marijuana has been known to slow or stop the progression of some conditions, such as MS.
“Not allowing MS patients access is a form of manslaughter to me,” said Paul Stanford, executive director of Portland-based The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation. The group organizes clinics to receive doctor recommendations for medical marijuana in 28 cities, including Kennewick.
Tri-City pot clinics
Stanford said up to 40 new patients each month attend the clinics at Kennewick’s Wingate Inn to receive a doctor’s recommendation. Patients must provide documentation of their condition to receive a recommendation.
“Most of the patients that we see have tried a wide variety of traditional treatments,” Stanford said.
The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation clinic began in Kennewick a few years ago after the nonprofit saw patients were having difficulty getting recommendations from doctors, Stanford said. Few Mid-Columbia doctors treat medical marijuana patients, so some patients, like Biggerstaff, travel to the west side of the state to find treatment.
The clinics also provide patients resources to learn how to bake, vaporize or otherwise prepare the medication, as well as access to a password-protected forum.
Though Stanford said one of the main problems is actually getting access to marijuana, the nonprofit group has to avoid actually providing medical marijuana, seeds or plants for patients to produce their own.
The July 2008 state report said many patients told the Department of Health they get marijuana from drug dealers or underground dispensaries. Patients also sometimes share their supply with others in need.
“There are legitimate people who are in pain. So where do they go? They go to a street dealer,” said Chief Corsi. “You’re forcing them to do something illegal when that’s not their intention.”
The state report said group growing, dispensaries and government supply could increase patient access.
But it also said safety and diversion — the potential for marijuana getting into the hands of those who aren’t medical marijuana patients — could be a challenge for group operations. It said security procedures and government regulation could reduce the safety and diversion risks.
Sen. Kohl-Welles said access to safe, reliable sources of medical marijuana is critical. She said more needs to be done to provide that, and she plans to work with advocates and the Department of Health to come up with legislation next year that addresses these issues.
Kohl-Welles said some in the Legislature have discussed increasing government regulation by adopting a state registry as long as there is absolute assurance of privacy.
Locally, Biggerstaff wants to improve access for the hundreds of medical marijuana patients in the Tri-Cities by setting up a group-growing operation and a storefront dispensary in Richland.
But he said the keys to having a successful collective include transparency, public education and city support — which he says so far hasn’t come.
“There’s absolutely no reason that the city shouldn’t help with this,” Biggerstaff said. “We’re not going to open a storefront before we have the city on our side.”
But Richland City Attorney Tom Lampson said Washington’s law doesn’t touch on the legality of group grows and dispensaries, so Richland cannot support Biggerstaff’s vision unless the law is amended.
“I haven’t seen anything that allows it,” Lampson said. “If the law changed, certainly we would look at it again.”
Stanford, of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, said, “It also doesn’t prohibit it, so it’s up to local authorities.”
He said getting local government support “dramatically” helps medical marijuana patients. “I think it’s needed. Patients need a safe, reliable source.”
“I think it’s the community’s responsibility to regulate that and not force it underground,” Stanford added.
Corsi said he hopes the Legislature better defines the law, but until then his department will continue to uphold the law as his department and the Benton County prosecutor interpret it.
“The laws need to be defined on these group things,” Corsi said. “I really think if they’re serious about it, they really need to go back to the Legislature.”
Safety a big concern
Biggerstaff said safety is one of the main reasons he wants the city on board. Medical marijuana patients who grow their own high-quality plants are at risk for violence and burglary. Group grows and dispensaries also are at risk for crime, the state report said.
“I have some major concerns with everything,” Corsi said. “You’ve got safety and security of the grow — who’s going to protect that? Who’s going to rip them off?” He added he also worries about patients getting high and then driving.
If the collective could work with the city to get strong security measures in place, Biggerstaff said, the group grow could be secure, and city police would know it was a grow specifically for legal medical marijuana patient use.
“You’ve got hundreds of small grows going on and that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It makes perfect sense to put our plants together.”
The state report also said large gardens could draw federal attention — marijuana use of any kind is not allowed by federal law — although the current administration and recent Supreme Court rulings have backed state laws.
Biggerstaff said the Three Rivers Collective — which he envisions as someday being a nonprofit run by a board of patients, law enforcement and health care providers — has strict regulations, including a screening process to become a member.
“There really isn’t any leeway on the rules. There is no bending them,” he said.
There are about three dozen members or people in the process of becoming members of the collective, he said.
Biggerstaff said the collective provides medical marijuana patients with support and education. That includes helping set up grows, finding caregivers or donating excess medication to those too sick to produce it themselves.
The Three Rivers Collective meets at 2 p.m. Saturdays at Richland Community Center. More information can be found at www.meetup.com/Three- Rivers-Collective.
“It’s all underground, it’s just the top layer has been scraped off so you can see the top of it,” Biggerstaff said. “The most important (goal) right now is access and education for our local area.”
By Laura Kate Zaichkin, Herald staff writer