A Toke A Day Keeps the Pain at Bay

A trip into the world of legalized marijuana

words and photographs by Ruego Leon*, guest writer

“I always advocate safer smoking,” the caregiver said when he handed me my first order of medical marijuana. “I threw some organic filters and Raw papers in the bag in case you’re like me and like to smoke joints—I mean marijuana cigarettes; we’re not supposed to call them joints anymore.”

I’m not the only student who’s also a card-carrying medical marijuana patient. As most Colorado College students probably know, medical marijuana has exploded across Colorado during the last year. Medical weed has been legal here since 2000, but when President Obama announced in 2009 that buyers or sellers who abided by their state laws would  no longer be the targets of federal law enforcement, dispenseries started springing up like—you guessed it—weeds. Now, more than 80,000 Coloradans are certified to use medical marijuana; almost every CC student has a “friend” or a former drug dealer who is now a medical marijuana patient. Throughout the state, doctors, dispensary owners, investors and patients, all sharing the same strong desire to medicate, have taken the trouble to sign up with the state as entities, or subjects, in the world of medical marijuana.

Colorado’s demand for medical marijuana has caused many Coloradans to link the industry’s rapid growth to the state’s 19th century gold rush. For users, the boom has created a new set of legitimate venues for pot use. For businesses, the industry has been a boon to small-scale dispensaries whose profits have fed back into newspapers (by way of advertisements) and tax revenue dollars. Our state is in the beginnings of an economic and social shift. While reporters and analysts of public policy discuss where this new industry might lead our state, we should not forget the perspective of the people driving the newborn industry. In terms of what it is and what it someday might be, medical marijuana can be understood best from the perspective of the user. I confess to be just that.

The influx of new medical marijuana patients and dispensaries  is in large part due President Obama’s instructions to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to no longer target medical marijuana operations in the country. Obama’s executive order—which banished many marijuana users’ fear of the DEA banging down their door—caused normally paranoid marijuana users to gain the confidence to sign up with Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDHE). This brought the average marijuana user out of hiding, out of back alleys, and perhaps out of the typical Colorado College dorm room, and turned them into medical marijuana patients. It also transformed the experience of using marijuana. What had once been a semi-hidden recreational activity evolved into perhaps the oddest “medical procedure” in the country, involving doctors, caregivers, bud tenders, the CDHE, and even the occasional armed security guard.

In a March 2010 press release responding to a wave of medical marijuana applicants, the CDHE addressed the increase in time needed to review applications. “The number of medical marijuana registry applications increased from approximately 270 per workday in August 2009 to approximately 1000 per workday in February 2010,” it explained. “The turnaround time for applications now is approaching six months.” Earlier in the year, the New York Times illustrated an odd phenomenon in the state of Colorado: “Summit and Pitkin counties, home to ski towns like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Aspen, pride themselves on a healthy youth culture but they also have a disproportionate amount of debilitating pain diagnosed in men in their twenties, state records show.” Clearly, many new participants are embellishing their medical history and condition in order to access legal marijuana.

Much to the dismay of my former R.A., I decided year to try out medical marijuana during the 2009-2010 academic year. Lucky for me, I developed a gastro-intestinal disorder back in the 7th grade that causes stomach discomfort and nausea, and also happens to be listed right next to cancer on nearly every state application for medical marijuana. As I would later tell the sympathetic doctor, I was in daily need of marijuana to “ease my suffering” and “improve my quality of life.” For whatever reason, he believed me, and, declaring me a responsible and eligible young adult, signed the paperwork needed to enroll with the state in the unusual world of medical marijuana.

Since high school, I had always joked with my friends, family, and the occasional doctor about how I should get medical marijuana. I never had been a big smoker; a predisposition towards anxiety and an inability to hide things from the authorities or my parents had severely limited my chances of becoming a pothead for most of my life. But despite all of this, I had an incredibly vain urge to get a recommendation (what is required to get marijuana from a dispensary, different from a prescription since medical marijuana cannot be dispensed by a traditional pharmacist), simply for the sake of having one. Shamelessly, I saw medical marijuana as a sort of social accessory that could help balance out all the pain my intestines had put me through over the years.

One day during second block break, my justifications fresh on my mind, I worked up the courage to borrow a car and to head to a doctor’s office in Denver. I used Google to find a clinic called The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation. After an endless search for the clinic amid houses and office parks, my hope of finding a legitimate clinic that actually cared about its patients quickly began to erode. When, by some act of God, I finally made it to right address, it was nearly impossible to find the actual clinic. No, I am not entirely inept. The clinic was not labeled anywhere—no signs, no greeters, no directions for where to go. There was a Panera on the first floor and on the second floor there was temporary office space with a secretary who was answering the phone for what seemed like seven different business. I was thoroughly confused at this point and began wandering aimlessly around the place.

Luckily, a middle-aged man with a peculiarly large smile noticed my confusion and my large stack of medical paperwork and said, “upstairs, bro, you want to talk to the lady upstairs. She’ll get you sorted out.” I went upstairs and very quietly asked the receptionist if this was indeed The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, or THC. She assured me it was, had me fill out paperwork, and checked see that I had brought the large sum of money I needed to secure the doctor’s recommendation. Like all drug dealers, they only took cash.

She led me across the hall into another part of rented office space. Here, I met the doctor. My examination lasted around fifteen minutes. “What are your symptoms? How often do they occur? Have you used marijuana before to relieve your pain? How often do you smoke marijuana? Do you have any other ailments that marijuana could negatively affect—heart issues, high blood pressure, asthma, chronic breathing problems?” After answering the questions, the doctor declared that I was now eligible for medical marijuana. With a few brisk strokes of his pen he made it official and gave me the name of a caregiver who could provide me with medical marijuana that same day.

I called the caregiver, who turned out to be a father-son team. The father would meet me at the carpool parking lot off the Larkspur exit. When I arrived, there was one car in the parking lot, a midnight blue Porsche 911 Carrera S. Not too shabby, I thought. We then got down to business: he had my medicine weighed out and pre-bagged, and before I knew it I had purchased my first eighth of medical marijuana. And unlike the countless illegal drug exchanges that happen every day, this deal was totally legal—even if it was only because I had the medical history, moral laxity, and wad of cash to pay a doctor to legally protect my illegal recreational habits. So what did this legal weed mean, exactly? Was it a social good that was improving my health, or another flaw in our morally-regulated capitalist society? I don’t know, but I do know that after two lengthy hospital stints during my freshman and sophomore years at CC, this “medical” experience was far from the norm.

Over the next year I visited dispensaries across the state and met with multiple caregivers. I also got a medical marijuana recommendation back home and let my year-long recommendation expire in Colorado. I met a large number of people within the industry and learned an amazing amount about marijuana, its healing properties, and the various ways one can consume the drug. I met some dispensary owners who genuinely cared about my health and wanted to improve my standard of living. Unfortunately, though, it seemed like these dispensaries were always the ones in the worst financial shape. And even after all my visits to caregivers, I realized I had barely scratched the surface of the medical marijuana world; there are currently more than eighty dispensaries listed in Colorado Springs alone.

Although I feel that my personal experience with medical marijuana was incredibly phony, there have been a lot of positive things that have occurred in the state due to the recent explosion of medical marijuana. The Denver Post reports that the medical marijuana industry has generated more than five million tax dollars in the last year. Dispensaries and caregivers of marijuana-related services have also helped improve Colorado’s economy by spending millions of dollars across the state. The significant increases in medical marijuana patients have created a boom industry, transforming millions of dollars from the black market into taxable dollars.

However, it appears that the increase in medical marijuana over the last year may have had some negative social consequences. Education News reported only last month that “drug violations shot up dramatically in Colorado schools during the 2009-10 school year, reversing a decade of steady declines.” This increase coincides with the explosion of medical marijuana use across the state and causes concern over the ability of medical marijuana to find its way to the black market. Yet, more study is needed before any regulations should be imposed. Perplexingly, the increases have been equally distributed throughout the state; the percentage of increases on drug infractions in counties with small increases in medical marijuana has been incredibly similar to the percentages in counties with much larger medical marijuana numbers. For now it is unclear whether medical marijuana is responsible for these increases, but it doesn’t appear to bode well for the industry.

While Colorado’s experiment with medical marijuana is just beginning, mine is coming to an end.  I no longer see any reason to pay for a medical marijuana recommendation. I can purchase great weed from the local campus drug dealers with a much shorter commute. In many ways my interactions with these drug dealers is less shallow, more caring, and more professional then some of my experiences with the “legitimate” legal medical marijuana industry in the state. (I won’t, however, let my recommendation expire at home on the East Coast. I have a great relationship with my caregiver there, and it’s harder to find quality non-medical weed there than it is at CC.) I entered the Colorado industry as a consumer, and not a patient, and was disappointed. There are still advantages to maintaining a habit for weed underground.

And this points to maybe the biggest question surrounding the medical marijuana in its infant years: How can Colorado reconcile legitimate patients’ need for the drug with phonies’ abuse of the system for personal gain?

We can’t count on legal marijuana to ease drug dealing problems or the state deficit if the industry fails to deliver to consumers, as it failed to deliver to me. But the industry needs regulation if it’s going to help people with real medical problems. Did the local dispensaries treat me as a patient or as a pothead? I’m still trying to figure that out for myself.

*Name has been changed.

A Toke A Day Keeps the Pain at Bay (PDF)


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