For this reporter, getting a card was just a videoconference away

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Reporter Amy Hamilton grins as she leaves Starbucks coffee after receiving her medical marijuana card via a video conference with a doctor.



QUICKREAD

Editor’s note: The Daily Sentinel sent reporter Amy Hamilton out in the field to get a first-hand account of the process of getting a prescription for medical marijuana. She was instructed to be absolutely truthful in answering questions during her medical evaluation. All expenses were covered by The Daily Sentinel. Her card and marijuana purchase will be confiscated and destroyed.



The newspaper ad with red lettering splayed over a large green marijuana leaf leapt from the page: “We have doctors ready to do patient assessments. The state has legalized medical marijuana. Call/Text now to get legal.”

I’ve always considered myself fairly healthy, but I wondered whether I could qualify for medical marijuana. So I called. I was about to find out.

For $275, said a man who answered the phone without identifying himself, I could get a doctor’s appointment that would include all the paperwork. If I didn’t qualify, I was guaranteed my money back. Did I want to make an appointment right then?

It seemed like a lot of cash. After asking some questions, the man sensed my hesitation. Meanwhile another phone rang somewhere on his end.

“I gotta go,” he said quickly and hung up.

After calling a couple Grand Junction’s dispensaries, I got the scoop. Most shops did not have full-time physicians to write referrals. Some had access to visiting doctors or could refer potential patients to a local doctor. If I wanted to wait, two Denver doctors would be in Grand Junction on Nov. 20 and 21 and would do assessments for $90, a discounted fee for many Western Slope residents, but a price tag more common in Denver.

I couldn’t wait. I called back the first number. With what seemed like more patience this time, I left the man my first name and cell phone number. Someone would call me back and make arrangements. Two days later, a sweet-sounding woman named Sarah called. My appointment would be a couple days later on Thursday at a coffee shop, where I would meet with a doctor via video feed. I could either collect my medical records or pay a fee to have the company, Urgent Herbal Care, retrieve them. How would I know whom to look for? Look for the red glasses, Sarah said.

uE06E

I rarely go to a doctor. I visited one in the fall of 2006 for a persistent upper respiratory infection that I was certain was mononucleosis. Tests showed it wasn’t, and I felt better within days. In 2001, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. After years of waiting tables and using a keyboard, my wrists one day suddenly felt unusually tight while I was writing a story as a reporter at a small weekly newspaper in Oregon. One ensuing flare-up was so bad I remember not being able to hold a shopping bag. I had surgery on my right hand that year and since then have learned loads about ergonomics. When I feel a flare-up coming on, which occurs maybe twice a year, I take vitamin B-complex daily and ramp up any exercise routine to keep circulation strong. I ice my forearms. Although I have nerve damage in my hands, it’s not painful on a daily basis, and I usually forget I have it.

My medical records list the 2001 surgery and say I’m healthy. I clutched these documents and walked into the coffee shop.

Sure enough, Sarah with red glasses was seated by the front window. She had an all-in-one printer, fax and copier seated on a chair next to her. Sarah sent a text message to someone on her iPhone while she had me fill out paperwork. A man in pressed slacks and a button-up shirt near us was using his laptop and calling clients about construction bids. Two women across the aisle leaned in toward each other and talked loudly about housecleaning. Upbeat classical music drowned out most of the other conversations, during a busy late morning rush with nearly all the shop’s tables taken.

I signed my name on a page that says I’m not an undercover cop, that I won’t drive with medical marijuana in my system, use the substance in public, sell it or share it, among other stipulations.

I listed carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain as my chief complaint.

While Sarah faxed my documents to a doctor in Silverthorne, someone called her on the phone. The person wanted to know why Sarah’s doctor need medical records when other doctors don’t.

“Because we’re legitimate,” she told me in an exasperated tone after hanging up.

I asked if that was true, if other doctors don’t require medical records. Sarah didn’t seem to think so.

“You can’t believe them,” she said.

After about 20 minutes, she turned a laptop computer toward me, and I put on headphones. The screen was separated down the middle, with myself on one side and a man identified as “Dr. Joe” on the other. I found out after Dr. Joe signed my medical marijuana registry form that he is Dr. Joseph Ferrara, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Minturn, and he has an active medical license to practice in Colorado, according to state records.

The doctor looked up briefly while appearing to be signing paperwork during our four-minute conversation. He asked whether I’ve been diagnosed with carpal tunnel. I said yes and told him about the surgery on my right hand. Dr. Joe queried about my left hand, and I mumbled something about flare-ups. Back pain, which I’ve had occasionally of late, is not reason enough, he said, especially because I have no evidence of getting treatment for it. Without so much as a goodbye, he asked to speak with Sarah.

Soon, Sarah received the form back, affixed with Dr. Ferrara’s signature. A box marked “severe pain” was checked, but the comment section was left blank. Other ailments on the form that are deemed to qualify a person for medical marijuana in Colorado include cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDs positive, cachexia, severe nausea, seizures or persistent muscle spasms.

With a signed document, I handed over a wad of bills. The $275 did not include the state’s mandatory $90 fee.

Sarah said she had seven patients to call and reschedule with after Dr. Joe canceled his appointments the following day. She sets up meetings all along Interstate 70 east to Vail, she said. If there are more than seven patients, she is allowed by her company to rent a room to conduct transactions. If not, she merely needs a wi-fi connection. Some days she facilitates doctor-patient meetings for one or two people, and other days it can be as many as 13 people, she said.

I wished her luck, and 53 minutes after walking into the coffee shop, I left with a temporary card in hand.

It was time to go shopping.

***

I conducted a search on Google for “dispensary grand junction,” and High Desert Dispensary LLC was the only medical marijuana dispensary to pop up and list an address, 1490 North Ave. Owner Chad Geery was pleased when I told him that, but he said he knows of at least eight medical marijuana dispensaries in town, and that there are 19 business licenses in town to sell the drug.

The inside of Geery’s shop is cheery, painted in shades of sunset orange and juniper green. A compilation of soothing pop tunes emitted from his computer, and soapstone statues graced a shelf over his desk. There wasn’t any rendition of a marijuana leaf in sight, and that’s not by accident, said Geery, 35.

Geery allowed me and a photographer — who have identified ourselves as members of the media — inside his lobby. He wouldn’t let either of us near a room where medical marijuana is stored. He sounded surprised when I told him I have a license. He took my driver’s license and compared it to my temporary card.

“It’s not notarized,” he said. “I don’t think I can sell to you.”

I told Geery about how I obtained my registry via video conference, hours earlier.

“That, to me, just sends up red flags,” he said. “I’m really not going to sell to you.”

Geery said he supports the city of Grand Junction instating a moratorium on future dispensaries in town.

“Without a moratorium, in a month or two there could be 20 more stores,” he said. “Somebody’s got to give. I hope it’s not me.”

***

After getting my document notarized, I set out again in search of medication. A new shop, Herbal Medicine Center, 3258 F Road, suite B, caught my eye. Upon entering, a young man who looked to be in his early 20s immediately asked for my medical marijuana card and identification. He photocopied both. Meanwhile, I was tasked with placing my initials next to a long list of rules.

I did not identify myself as a member of the media this time, because I did not have a photographer accompany me.

The shop has edible, marijuana-infused treats, so I took a gander inside the refrigerator. I purchased chocolate-covered cherries and a rice crispy bar at $7 each and a banana nut muffin for $5. A pungent, sweet blast of air greeted me as I stepped inside the back room to pay for the treats. Lined up along the desk is medical marijuana in glass jars with names like Blueberry and Lemonkush. The latter would probably be best to help circulation, he told me.

After the friendly transaction, I asked the young man whether the store helps people get marijuana licenses. Two doctors work with the store on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he said. One of the doctors he mentioned is the one who approved my medical marijuana card, Dr. Joseph Ferrara.

The Herbal Medicine Center employee told me about patients who received cards the day before and how they laughed about how easy it was be recommended after a three-minute talk by Web camera. The doctors, the man said, earn $150 each transaction.

“They were saying, ‘I should have been a doctor,’ ” he said.

***

After I purchased my medical marijuana on Friday morning, I finished writing my story, then tried to call Dr. Ferrara on Friday evening at the phone number listed for him on my application form. I left a message for him with the person who answered the phone, and I identified myself as a reporter seeking comment for this story.

Dr. Ferrara did not return the call.


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