Authorities scramble to deal with boom in medical marijuana use

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Tina at the medical marijuana dispensary Weeds Health, L.L.C., 719 Pitkin Ave., holds a bud of Blueberry Hash Plant that is offered at the dispensary. A supply of Blueberry Hash Plant sells for $48 to $60 for 1/8 of an ounce.

A perceived ease in getting medical marijuana in Colorado is making some people uneasy.

When the Colorado Board of Health in July eliminated limits on the number of patients a medical marijuana dispensary can have, it created opportunities for entrepreneurs who grow, bake and distribute cannabis. Possession of the drug, though, remains illegal under federal law.

As medical marijuana is becoming more visible, evidenced by a growing number of dispensary storefronts in Grand Junction and elsewhere, law enforcement and employers constantly are questioning the green revolution.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he knew Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana for some state residents, eventually would cause backlash if passed as it read. The law doesn’t provide for regulation of caretakers and dispensaries. Also, anecdotal reports of abuse in the system, such as one doctor approving 200 patients in one day, “leads some to wonder whether doctors are paying attention,” Suthers said.

In the Grand Valley, patients may qualify for a medical marijuana card by visiting with a doctor during a brief conversation via video conference.

Even Chad Geery, the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary, sees the conundrum.

At his High Desert Dispensary, 1490 North Ave., Geery sometimes watches people walk up to his storefront, read the sign and shake their heads in disgust. Yet, someone else may thank him profusely for providing a perceived natural alternative to prescription medications.

Geery, 35, is proud to help his patients with legitimate pain, something he knows about well.

He developed sciatica, or numbness, after doctors hit a nerve performing a spinal tap. The pain that followed for months down the left side of his body “felt like I was being stabbed with 1,000 knives,” he said.

What followed was always the same: Geery would check into a hospital’s emergency room, receive morphine that knocked him out for eight hours and be sent home with Percocet. The drug only made him nauseous and “left me to drool on my pillow,” he said.

Using medical marijuana for legitimate pain is one thing. Having a medical marijuana card or operating a dispensary as a front for consuming or selling drugs is quite another, said Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, adding he believes such abuse is happening in Mesa County.

“The point is it’s a runaway train,” Hilkey said. “It’s pretty clear what’s going on here.”

Hilkey worries that legitimate patients are being duped into paying too much for the doctors’ fees and medication. He also said he’s certain that, because medical marijuana seems so easy to obtain, it sometimes is getting into the wrong hands.

Another concern, Hilkey said, is an increase in medical marijuana dispensaries will lead to an increase of residents using the drug while driving, which is illegal. That could be a slippery slope for law enforcement if officers have to determine whether the use of medical marijuana contributed to a crash.

It’s easy to see how suspicions arise about the validity of medical marijuana use.

According to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment:

The average age is 41 for all of Colorado’s registered users, and 73 percent are men.

More than 800 physicians in Colorado have referred patients for medical marijuana use, but 15 doctors across the state have provided recommendations for more than three-fourths of the state’s registered users.

Two doctors are responsible for recommendations for more than one-third of the state’s registered patients.

As of July 31, 13,102 patients have been added to the registry, and the Health Department receives an estimated 400 applications daily.

Patients afflicted with at least one of eight debilitating conditions can be granted a referral by a physician, but 90 percent of all patients on the state’s registry list their ailment as severe pain.

Grand Junction City Council member Bill Pitts said he refused to rent a storefront to people who wanted to open a medical marijuana dispensary. He sees medical marijuana use as “another deterioration of morality, and one step closer to making marijuana legal for all users,” which is something he’s opposed to.

“I believe it’s just another nail in the coffin and being used as another step toward something I’m not in favor of,” he said.


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