Drugs: Club Medicine

Support for medical marijuana is growing, but many patients are not waiting for a change in policy.


Shortly after his arrest last May, Ronald "Stich" Miller showed off what was left of his marijuana-growing facility and recalled his plants, more than 100 of them, with pride. He boasts that the confiscated crop of "Seattle Blue" clones he was cultivating in a Bainbridge Island, Washington, mobile home could have been featured in High Times, the marijuana aficionado's journal. The police who arrested Miller and JoAnna McKee, his live-in companion, were similarly impressed, according to McKee. "The police told us they never had seen anything as clean as our plants," she says.

The police shouldn't have been surprised. Miller and McKee are the founders and operators of Green+Cross Patient Co-op, Washington state's sole above-ground medical-marijuana network, an open secret on the island and in Seattle, a half-hour ferry ride to the east. Earlier in the year, Miller was shown delivering marijuana on a Seattle PBS program called Health Notes, in a segment originally produced for the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. In 1994, McKee unsuccessfully lobbied the Bainbridge Island City Council for a resolution urging local police to deprioritize arrests of pot users with painful medical conditions. The resolution also urged the federal government to permit the use of doctor-prescribed marijuana.

Looking through Miller and McKee's files after the arrest, the police would have seen the signed doctors' letters required by Green+Cross, certifying that the patients had informed their physicians of their intent to seek marijuana from the co-op. The couple also kept a mission statement: "GCPC will not sell cannabis. Instead, it will be given away with the understanding that financial contributions will be accepted and should be sufficient to maintain our operation costs. Persons who are unable to make a financial contribution shall not be denied cannabis because of their inability to pay."

Judging by the middle-aged couple's modest home, from which they were evicted shortly after their arrest, Miller and McKee were not turning many people away. A "Don't Tread on Me" banner next to their front door, which police kicked open to serve a search warrant, advertised their attitude. (In September, a Kitsap County Superior Court judge threw out the county's case against Miller and McKee because police overstepped the limits of the search warrant.) Inside the mobile home, the couple didn't have much in the way of possessions. They are frank about their marijuana use and about why they started Green+Cross. Money wasn't one of the reasons. "In a year's production, if we were providing for the street, we'd be able to make $500,000," Miller says. "We did everything for donation and cost." McKee says patients did not donate any set amount. "It was always pay what you want."

Green+Cross, which had been up and running for a little less than two years before the bust, was well known in Seattle's AIDS community. Shortly after Miller and McKee were arrested, Bill and Jim, partners and co-op members from Seattle, dropped in on the couple for a visit and stayed for an interview I had scheduled with Miller and McKee. Bill and Jim had found out about Green+Cross through an AIDS treatment clinic in Seattle. "A lot of doctors don't really want to talk about it," Bill says. "It was a case worker who slipped a number to me and said, 'You might want to get in touch.' " Neither man has much to lose by getting involved with Miller and McKee. Bill has been struggling with AIDS for nine years, while Jim suffers from degenerative arthritis, prostate cancer, and a history of strokes.

The two vouch for the quality of the product provided by Green+Cross. Although his face is gaunt, Bill says he has gained six pounds since he started using Green+Cross marijuana, which helps him with his appetite. Smoking marijuana also helps Bill with another constant of AIDS. "It's like running a marathon, and you ache all the time," he says. "Marijuana helps relieve that feeling." He especially appreciates that Green+Cross's product is, as the police had remarked, "clean," meaning free of molds that can cause respiratory infections, which can prove deadly to people with AIDS.

Jim appreciates Green+Cross for another reason: He had been on harder stuff under doctors' orders. He is using Green+Cross marijuana in a tea form and credits it with getting him out of a wheelchair and onto crutches. He says the pot tea is preferable to pharmaceuticals prescribed through the Veterans' Administration. "They saved my life, but they're too freehanded with hard drugs," Jim says of his V.A. doctors. "I wanted off morphine and codeine."

With 70 members, Green+Cross may be unique for Washington state, but it is just one of many above-ground marijuana "buyers' clubs" in the United States. Club members suffer from various diseases, with AIDS, cancer, arthritis, and glaucoma the most common. Many also suffer from the side effects of AIDS treatment and cancer chemotherapy. They seek marijuana to relieve pain, control muscle spasms and seizures, overcome nausea, stimulate appetite, and (in the case of glaucoma) relieve intraocular pressure that can lead to blindness. With the exception of eight people who receive marijuana under the federal government's "compassionate use" program, which has been closed to new patients since 1992, the drug is not legally available as a medicine.

In 1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, concluded that the federal government should reclassify marijuana so doctors could prescribe it, but he was overruled by DEA Administrator John C. Lawn. Many political bodies and health organizations, including 35 state legislatures, the American Public Health Association, the American Bar Association, and the California Medical Association, also say the ban on medical marijuana should be lifted. In November U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced H.R. 2618, which would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a variety of conditions. But the buyers' clubs are not waiting for a change in policy.

With some 6,000 registered members, the San Francisco-based Cannabis Buyers Club is the largest and most conspicuous of the clubs. Born in the city's gay Castro District, the club works with the tacit approval of City Hall. As John Entwistle, the club's volunteer coordinator, notes, the city's policy of looking the other way prevents otherwise law-abiding citizens from supporting the street trade in marijuana. Non-enforcement also saves the San Francisco Police Department the bad publicity of arresting and jailing people with terminal conditions, many of them members of the city's politically powerful gay community.

The club recently moved from a small storefront to a 29,000-square-foot commercial space on Market Street, just a few blocks away from City Hall and the state and federal buildings. Club director Dennis Peron says rent for the multi-level space is nominal, thanks to a club sympathizer whose wife died of cancer. At the street-level entrance a group of bouncers screens club members, would-be members, and visitors. A flight of steps brings you to the club's offices; another flight up is the membership desk, where photo IDs and letters of diagnosis are inspected before membership is granted.

Hazel Rodgers, a 76-year-old volunteer working the desk, says it's rare that people con their way into the club. Indeed, buying marijuana around the corner in the Civic Center is much easier and can be done any time of the day or night. Jeffrey Reed, an HIV-positive registered nurse who moved from Fort Worth to San Francisco to work at the club, says intuition and knowledge of the AIDS culture play a big part in screening out healthy people with bogus medical claims. "You can tell," he says. "People who have HIV, we have a vernacular other people don't." Entwistle says the club provides comfort and sanctuary for AIDS patients who are approaching the end. "Doctors don't know what to do with them," he says. "If they die, they die happy."

Although the club gets most of its referrals through the gay community, not all of its members have AIDS. Peron, who started the club after he was arrested for providing his ailing lover with marijuana, believes that practically any painful medical condition can be treated with marijuana. This broad approach may leave the club open to criticism. Along with letters of diagnosis from physicians at respected medical centers such as Berkeley's Alta Bates Hospital and the University of California at San Francisco, a file that Peron showed me included more than a few letters from chiropractors attesting to painful conditions that are difficult or impossible to verify objectively.

A skeptic may also be troubled by the almost festive atmosphere at the Cannabis Buyers Club. Beyond the registration desk is a paraphernalia counter and, most stunning of all the club's features, a third floor not unlike an Amsterdam marijuana bar. There club members smoke pot and socialize. A counter serving the lunch-time crowd also sells marijuana in leaf form, in baked goods, and in salves. Behind the counter a price board lists the available marijuana along with prices, the best being a AAA-rated "California green" variety priced the day I visited at $75 per one-eighth ounce. A Mexican variety costing $20 an eighth was also available. Peron says the club sells roughly 10 pounds of marijuana, which he purchases, inspects, and grades, a week.

The flagrant nature of the club's activities makes some members of the medical marijuana movement uneasy. Even Green+Cross's Miller says he doesn't want his operation to be tagged as a "party room" because the Cannabis Buyers Club has advised it. The San Francisco club had a close call last April, when the DEA and the FBI put it under surveillance and went to the city police department for help. The SFPD declined to get involved, and word about the surveillance got out, which gave Peron the chance to organize a demonstration in front of the city's federal building. The investigation was ultimately called off.

While Peron's in-your-face style may raise eyebrows, he deserves respect for his organizational and political skills. The club also serves as headquarters for Californians for Compassionate Use, which is trying to get a medical marijuana initiative on the 1996 ballot. The most important provision of the initiative would simply recognize what's already going on between many patients and doctors: "No physician in the State of California shall be punished, or denied any right or privilege, for recommending marijuana to a patient for treatment of nausea, appetite loss, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or other intractable illnesses for which marijuana provides relief, providing that such medicinal use of marijuana would, in such physician's professional medical judgment, be of benefit to his or her patient."

There's reason to believe that the 600,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot will be gathered if people line up to what they've been telling pollsters. Americans are generally sympathetic to patients seeking medical marijuana. (In fact, many are surprised to learn it is not legally available.) A November 1995 poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 79 percent of Americans think letting physicians prescribe marijuana is a "good idea." Eighty-five percent of respondents said they would favor making marijuana legally available for medical uses where it has proven effective.

In California, where Gov. Pete Wilson has twice vetoed medical marijuana bills, a March 1995 poll by David Binder Research found that 66 percent of registered voters support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes (compared to 22 percent who favored legalization of all marijuana use by adults). Support in some parts of the state is even stronger. In San Francisco in 1991, about 80 percent of voters approved a referendum urging the legalization of medical marijuana. In 1992, 77 percent of Santa Cruz County voters favored pot by prescription. The state legislature has repeatedly expressed support for the idea by large margins, as have county and city boards of supervisors around the state. Major California newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, and the Orange County Register, have editorialized in favor of marijuana use for medical purposes.

The medical marijuana movement continues to attract support from conservatives as well as liberals and libertarians. Journalists such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Richard Brookhiser have long argued that patients should have access to pot, and on the campaign trail conservatives are coming to share that view. During a July meeting with the editorial board of The Charlotte Observer, Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan said the use of marijuana as a medicine should be a matter between patient and physician. "If a doctor indicated to his patient that this was the only way to alleviate certain painful symptoms," Buchanan told the Observer, "I would defer to the doctor's judgment."

The question that elicited this response was submitted by Rick Doblin, a Charlotte resident who heads the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which supports pot by prescription. Buchanan's answer "was eminently reasonable," Doblin says. "We've done a lot of lobbying of sympathetic Republicans, but they were afraid to take a public position. When Buchanan said that, it was refreshing."

One person in particular found Buchanan's statement more than refreshing and would later ask the candidate to confirm it. George McMahon of Bode, Iowa, suffers from Nail Patella Syndrome, a painful and terminal neurological and bone disorder. He is one of eight Americans who may legally smoke marijuana, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. McMahon smokes the marijuana to ease the pain caused by his condition and by the numerous operations he has undergone. He has another reason to want marijuana rescheduled so that it can prescribed: His 24-year-old daughter also has Nail Patella Syndrome.

At an October campaign stop in Bode, McMahon asked Buchanan what he thought about pot by prescription. According to the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, Buchanan reversed himself, saying doctors should not prescribe pot because it's a worse drug than alcohol. But when McMahon told Buchanan about his condition, the candidate said, "If everything you say is true, and I choose to believe you, I would support you in a second." What wasn't reported by the local newspaper was McMahon's meeting with Buchanan after the campaign stop officially ended. "I went and talked to him later, and he said he couldn't understand why the DEA was controlling my medicine," McMahon says. "He seemed very sincere to me."

Less prominent conservatives also support medical marijuana. A conservative Christian from Poulsbo, Washington, began using marijuana years ago, at the recommendation of his oncologist, while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. The man, who asked me not to use his name, described himself as a supporter of his area's Republican state representative, also a conservative Christian, and a backer of a statewide anti-gay rights initiative. "I think I have an opportunity as a conservative and a Christian to bring some credibility to the [medical marijuana] issue and bridge a gap," he says.

Although medical marijuana may seem a natural issue for the left, the conditions that can be treated with pot affect people across the political spectrum. Personal experiences with the medical benefits of marijuana have a powerful impact not only on patients but on their relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Their testimony makes medical marijuana a humanitarian issue that transcends partisan differences. Supporters of Barney Frank's medical marijuana bill note that it reads a lot like a 1981 bill co-sponsored by a second-term congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.

Seattle resident Jim Christie's work on environmental and property rights issues has appeared in The American Enterprise, Chronicles, and Human Events.