Medical Marijuana Requests Climb Sky High

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Medical Marijuana Requests Climb Sky High

Dispensary owners report 50 to 300 percent rise since Obama took office

by
Brian Alexander

The number of ailing people turning to medical
marijuana to ease their symptoms has spiked this year, say dispensary
owners in some of the 13 states where it's legal.

Requests
have jumped anywhere from 50 to 300 percent, they say, since President
Barack Obama took office and signaled that he won't use federal
marijuana laws to override state laws as the Bush administration did.
Others say the economic downturn may also be responsible as more people
without insurance are seeking alternatives to costly medications.

In
the past few months, marijuana co-ops, clubs, businesses and even
lawyers who have advocated for looser dope regulations say they've been
inundated with requests for information and certifications that permit
people to use marijuana for medical purposes.

"I
have been flooded with calls," reported Seattle attorney Douglas Hiatt,
a long-time marijuana advocate. "It's ‘Where can I find a doctor [to
prescribe it]? How can I start a co-op?' You wouldn't believe it."

Under
the George W. Bush administration, federal authorities maintained that
federal marijuana laws took precedence over state law, even in states
that had approved therapeutic cannabis. But Obama indicated during the
presidential campaign that he supported the controlled use of marijuana
for medical purposes, saying he saw no difference between medical
marijuana and other pain-control drugs.

"My
attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best
palliative care and the way to relieve pain and suffering is medical
marijuana, then that's something I'm open to," Obama said in November 2007
at a campaign stop in Audubon, Iowa. "There's no difference between
that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from
pain."

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In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to limit Drug Enforcement Administration raids of prescription cannabis dispensaries to those businesses and organizations that break both state as well as federal laws.

"Our
focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating
substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's
inconsistent with federal and state law," he said.

300 percent increase
Hard
numbers and state-to-state comparisons are difficult to come by because
state laws vary and because some states are still creating their
programs; New Mexico expects to license its first legal marijuana
producer this month. But the state of Colorado has tracked registered
medical marijuana users since implementing its law on June 1, 2001. As
of the end of 2008, there were 4,720 applications received, almost all
of which had been approved. But as of February 28 of this year, that
number stood at 6,796, an increase of 2,076 in just two months.

"I
have had a 300 percent rise at my business," reported the owner of
Colorado's Boulder County Caregivers, a marijuana dispensary. (She
asked not to be named since she also works in local government.)

Her
numbers are rising despite obstacles that remain in the path of those
seeking access. For example, many doctors are reluctant to authorize
their patients to use marijuana either because its efficacy has not
been proven in rigorous trials, shown to be superior to other drugs, or
because they themselves fear risking their own federal license to
prescribe medications like opiate pain killers if they are seen to be
defying federal drug law.

"I have
legitimate cancer patients who cannot get a doctor to sign," the
Boulder dispensary owner said. "Their doctor will say ‘Talk to your
oncologist,' and the oncologist will say ‘Talk to your other doctor.'
So I see the same doctors' names over and over. Patient records show
the same two clinics because so many go there since their own doctors
will not do it for fear of federal retribution."

Some organizations leap this hurdle by providing their own doctors.

"I
have 12 doctors working with us right now," said Paul Stanford,
director of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, based in Portland, Ore.
THCF has started clinics in eight states, often by bringing along one
of its own paid doctors who happens to be licensed in that state.

Stanford
claimed his clinics are booming, too, with about 50 percent more calls
and patient certifications than before the new administration took
office.

In addition to the Obama
administration's position on medical marijuana, demographics may also
be a co-factor in the overall rise. Many people born after World War II
have had at least some exposure to marijuana, and now that the
government has indicated it will be more lenient, might be more
inclined to turn to the party drug of their youth to ease the maladies
of age. Few people under 65, "are truly naïve to cannabis," suggested
Dr. Frank Lucido, an Oakland, Calif., physician who has long been a
leader in California's medical marijuana community.

Economy may be playing role
Lucido
has seen an increase in patients, too, but a slight one, a much smaller
bump than he would have expected. It's possible, he speculated, that
because so many dispensaries have opened in California, some offering
quickie - and often dubious - medical exams to certify patient need,
that the total number of medical marijuana consumers has boomed, but
that many are avoiding more stringent practitioners like himself.

One
final possibility for the increase in numbers is economic. The
Congressional Budget Office estimates that at least 45 million
Americans under age 65 are now without health insurance.

As
the number of medical marijuana outlets expands, and fear of federal
drug charges diminishes, some of those people, faced with paying out of
pocket for pharmaceutical drugs or for cannabis, "will turn to medicine
that is good for a whole bunch of ailments, that you can grow yourself
and not spend a tremendous amount of money on," Hiatt said. "That's
very appealing to lots of people."

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