| TahoeDailyTribune.com

These days the sight of a marijuana plant must make a cop nervous.

Is the plant being grown to get people high or will it be used to treat an illness?

Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, hundreds of citizens in El Dorado County have been smoking, baking and vaporizing the herb to treat chronic pain, nausea and glaucoma as well as a host of other ailments.

The proposition made the medicinal use of marijuana legal with a doctor’s recommendation. It says a doctor can recommend the drug for illnesses such as AIDS, anorexia “or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

But four years after 215 passed, the county (and the state) is still struggling to create guidelines for people who grow medicinal marijuana legally.

After the act became law, El Dorado County and the sheriff’s department set rudimentary rules. People with doctors’ recommendations are allowed to grow six plants, have one pound of processed marijuana in their residence or one ounce in their vehicle.

“It’s a rough guideline to assist law enforcement out in the field,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy. “They aren’t hard and fast.”

Now each situation is dealt with case-by-case. Deputies and police officers are allowed to arrest anyone growing or possessing any amount of marijuana.

Lacy said what 215 provides to those with a doctor’s recommendation is an affirmative defense in a court of law.

“Even if there is a recommendation in hand, officers still can arrest somebody for that marijuana,” Lacy said. “Medicinal marijuana users could show that they have this recommendation to a judge and jury.

“Under federal law it’s still a violation of law. The quandary that law enforcement faces is that we are sworn to uphold the U. S. Constitution and the constitution of the state of California. We’re kind of in a box.”

Last Saturday, “the box” Lacy spoke of, and the wide spectrum of issues it contains, was the topic of a forum in Garden Valley, Calif., a small community 10 miles north of Coloma.

Lacy and El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker sent Dr. Stephen G. Drogin, a county health official, as their representative.

The meeting lasted almost four hours and drew a panel of 10. More than 100 attended the meeting. It was promoted and organized by the Garden Valley Community Association as a meeting to educate and inform people about how 215 is being carried out.

“I’ve listened to some parts of that,” Lacy said about an audio tape of the meeting. “It was a very confrontational atmosphere. We’re not going to be walking into an ambush. We’ve heard their side. Their side is that they want all drugs legalized. We are trying to educate ourselves with medical doctors. We don’t want a bunch of potheads teaching us about it.”

For the last nine months, Lacy, Drogin and other county officials have met to discuss updating the guidelines for medicinal users and growers. In an effort to sort out the issues, such as transportation, storage, and the number of plants one can grow, they are trying to work with doctors and find solutions.

“I’m giving you a rough vision,” Lacy said. “We want legitimate users to have their case reviewed by a panel of doctors. Have them look at each case, and figure out what amounts are medically appropriate. That then would help give law enforcement some guidance … even jurors have expressed frustration. The law doesn’t say how much should be for personal use.”

Lacy added that his plan is not something that’s going to happen overnight.

That timetable is what worries patients who say they need marijuana every day. Many have to go to the black market to get it.

CHAPTERHEAD: South Shore patients

Deborah Armstrong, 36, suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and seizures. She has had a medical recommendation for marijuana for more than a year. Armstrong smokes every day and uses almost two ounces each month. Marijuana alleviates her nausea and anxiety.

“The biggest problem is forcing us patients to go to the black market,” she said. “We should have a safe environment to obtain medication. I don’t do well in public places.”

Armstrong said a member of her family grows marijuana, but they live miles away. She said growing her own medication isn’t even a possibility.

“I can’t even grow a house plant,” she said. “Telling a patient to grow their own medication is like giving a poppy seed to someone and saying make your own Vicadin.”

Shelly Arnold, 46, is another woman who holds the controversy surrounding 215 close to her heart. She has a doctor’s recommendation because of muscle spasms and an autoimmune disorder. Her 15-year-old son also has the right to use marijuana as medicine.

He has had an eating disorder since birth. When he was six months old he only weighed nine pounds. One night two years ago, her boy came home from a skateboard park high.

“He ate two pork chops, two helpings of mashed potatoes and wanted dessert. That’s more than he eats in a week,” Arnold said. “As of a year ago, this kid who never grew, never ate, has grown 6 inches and put on 14 pounds. It’s the biggest growing and gaining in his entire life.”

Since she and her son received their medicinal certificates more than a year ago, Arnold has become an “oral caregiver,” or someone who bakes with marijuana and gives out product to those in need. Her speciality is Rice Krispie treats made with marijuana butter.

“People call me and tell me they’re eating lunch for the first time in five days since their chemotherapy treatment,” she said. “That’s when I decided about six months ago I was gonna go on a mission.”

CHAPTERHEAD: Getting a medical recommendation

Dr. Marion Pottenger Fry saw about 10 to 15 patients the last time she worked at South Lake Tahoe. These days she and her husband Dale Schafer come to South Shore every couple of months.

They used to have a suite here and would see people one day a week. They found there wasn’t enough of a demand to rent the suite so now whenever they come they conduct business in a hotel room.

Fry and Schafer are the most well-known advocates of medicinal marijuana in El Dorado County. Their office in Cool, Calif., is known as the California Medical Research Center. They have 3,500 to 4,000 clients throughout the state.

An initial visit to Dr. Fry costs $200, which includes a legal consultation with Schafer. California law requires patients renew their medicinal recommendation every year. Such a visit at Dr. Fry’s office costs $100.

“Our typical patient has chronic pain, multiple scelorsis, or cancer,” Schafer said. “But we have lots secondary diagnoses, like inability to sleep, anxiety, depression, migraine headaches, even PMS if it’s a chronic problem.”

Dr. Fry, however, does not supply patients with marijuana.

“We’re primarily an information service. We have information about Bay Area clubs. But I can’t tell someone go there and buy it. A lot of the time they have to go to the black market.”

Schafer said growing marijuana as a caregiver – someone who grows it for others who have doctors’ recommendations – can be messy.

“If that person gets reimbursed for it, it becomes a real tricky issue,” he said. “Typically you get charged with sales. I’m involved in a number of cases where people tried to do this right.”

How much marijuana people need to medicate themselves is an issue that’s still very much undecided.

“It depends on whether you’re using it raw, smoking it, vaporizing it, eating, it really varies,” he said. “(Doctors) want you to stop smoking it (for health reasons), but it takes three to five times more marijuana if you’re going to eat it and law enforcement doesn’t like those numbers. The whole thing is a gray area.” To reach Dr. Fry call (530) 832-9963.

CHAPTERHEAD: Have weed, will travel

Matt Macosko, 28, is a man with a plan. He wants to organize a discreet dispensary at South Shore called Tahoe Healing Caregivers and is seeking the approval of the district attorney, police and sheriff’s department.

He practices what he preaches. Every day he delivers buds to people who need marijuana for medical reasons.

“When I was almost dying last winter Matt took care of me,” said a senior citizen who gets the herbs from Matt. “He’s helped so many challenged people, but many of us can’t appear for legal reasons.

“We really need a distribution center up here. I was arrested 50 years ago for marijuana and was fined $29. I didn’t even know it was illegal then. They arrested me again at 64 years old and I got very sick. We’re not nobody you know. It’s time they stopped terrorizing us. We’re not criminals.”

Before Macosko opens a cooperative, he wants a stamp of approval from county and city officials. In 1996, he was jailed for seven months for selling marijuana.

“I have to get the sheriff’s and DA’s words so they’re not going to kick down the door the day it opens. That would be a lot of wasted effort,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of smart people to get this going.”

Macosko has enlisted Dr. Philip Denney, a physician from Loomis, Calif., to be medical director of the cooperative.

“If it does happen I’ll make sure appropriate patients get recommendations,” Denney said. “Make sure it’s not some scam to make it so anyone who wanted one could get one.”

Dr. Denney became involved with medicinal use of marijuana when a family member needed the herb.

“I think this is a remarkably effective drug,” the 52-year-old said. “It’s most useful for chronic pain as an adjunct to narcotics. It doesn’t cure pain, but does help. My basic issue is that we live in a democracy. I make no claims cannabis is a wonder drug, but I think people have a right to use it without going to jail.”

Macosko is asking for feedback from the community regarding a medicinal marijuana cooperative. He can be reached at 123hemp.org or P.O. Box 7189, South Lake Tahoe 96158.

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