Drug Law

Portland Reporter Goes Undercover, "Easily" Gets Medical Marijuana Card

| by NORML
"I've been in three car accidents and have scoliosis, which give me severe neck and back pain. Somehow it was surprisingly easy for me to get a medical marijuana card!"

(KATU News)I wanted to know if all these people really need treatment with marijuana and how easy it is to get a medical marijuana card. So I went undercover to find out.

My quest to get a card began with a visit to a local medical marijuana clinic. As I approached the clinic, I was greeted by a man on a smoke break. He proceeded to review my medical records right on the sidewalk with his cigarette in his mouth.

Finally, the doctor returned, and I’m seen for no more than 10 minutes.

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He looked at my medical records which reflect two appointments with my primary care physician for pain within the last three years. Two appointments at least 90 days apart is one requirement to obtain a medical marijuana card.

Severe pain happens to be the number one condition people give when they apply for a medical marijuana card. Of the 33,000 patients currently holding cards, 29,500 stated severe pain as their ailment. Persistent muscle spasms (7,843) and nausea (4,849) followed as a distant second and third, and then cancer (1,294), seizures (891), cachexia (660), HIV/AIDS (575) and glaucoma (509).

When I applied for the card, I did not make up any medical issues. My neck and back pain relate to three car accidents of which I was not at fault and scoliosis – a curvature of my spine.

They’re conditions charted in my medical records by my doctor and for which I’ve fairly successfully treated over the years with massage therapy but not with marijuana.

But my conditions are enough for the doctor to sign off on my card saying, on the document I would have to turn into the state to receive my card, that not only do I qualify (which is crossed off) but I would benefit from medical marijuana.

Yes, Anna Song, if you legally qualify for a medical marijuana card, it is easy to get one. You’ve been in three car accidents, have severe chronic pain, and scoliosis – as you point out, you didn’t lie, and since the clinic rightfully followed the law, you qualified. Medical science and Oregon law recognize your right to treat that chronic pain with what a DEA Administrative Law judge called “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” (NORML v. DEA, 1988)

What this report suffers from is the “medicine of the last resort” bias against cannabis, the safest medicine known to man. You mention that you successfully treat your pain with massage therapy, as if some other successful pain treatment means you shouldn’t qualify for medical cannabis. Do massage therapists enter their notes in your medical records that you turned in to the clinic’s doctor? How do you know whether the cannabis would be equally as effective as your massage therapy, or perhaps more effective as an addition to your massage therapy? What do you say to patients on fixed incomes who, unlike you, don’t have the money and insurance for regular massage therapy appointments, but might have a friend who could grow them some cannabis?

Pain is under-treated in this country and those who suffer are often stigmatized as “drug seeking” when they try to find relief. A survey by the Arthritis Foundation found that 42% of adults suffer some kind of pain daily and 89% suffer pain monthly, with a mean prevalence of chronic pain at 35.5% of the adult population (Harstall, 2003). So when you flash the big bold 29,500 patients of 33,000 getting cannabis for pain, I can only think that with 2.9 million adults in Oregon, 1 million with chronic pain, 29,500 is far too few patients using cannabis to treat pain.

For what other remedies do these one million Oregonians have? Last year the FDA called for (http://bit.ly/by1lON) even stricter controls and tighter warnings on prescription and over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen) because of “unintentional and intentional overdoses leading to severe hepatotoxicity (liver failure)”. More serious painkillers of the opioid variety (oxycontin, vicodin, darvocet, etc.) are also hepatotoxic, as well as physically addictive and very mind-, mood-, and reaction-altering.

Also, you flash the 29,500 number in big digits and say it in voice-over, while quickly dispatching the muscle spasms and nausea as “distant second and third” with no voice-over of the numbers, followed by the remaining conditions. But any third grader checking the numbers would notice they add up to much more than 33,000, which means that many of these pain patients are indicating it as a secondary condition to their cancer, AIDS, nausea, muscle spasms, and so forth.

This report is nothing more than a paean to the demagoguery of medical marijuana opponents who want to paint a picture of “rampant abuse” where there is none. Every year, according to the states’ OSCaR database, there are 17,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed. Estimates from the orgs that specialize in these disorders tell us there are over 125,000 cases of HIV/AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, glaucoma, epilepsy, and chronic nausea in Oregon. If anything, 33,000 medical marijuana patients is far too few patients and an indictment of the demonization of cannabis that prevents all but the most desperate patients seeking it and keeps all but the bravest doctors from recommending it.

Speaking of whom, Dr. Camacho-Otero, who has signed for more cards than any other doctor, is unfairly implied to be unprofessional or money-grubbing for doing so. It is no more surprising for Dr. Camacho-Otero to sign for a large amount of cards here than it is unusual for a single abortion provider to provide the majority of abortions in Wichita, Kansas. What every report on the “Top Ten Pot Docs” always fails to mention is that thousands of Oregon doctors are very accepting of medical cannabis and would love to recommend it to their patients, but are prevented by their hospital, clinic, HMO, VA, or federal ties from making recommendations. So we’ve created a system where most doctors can’t recommend, some of the rest won’t for fear of being labeled a “pot doc”, and the few that are brave enough to treat their patients with a non-toxic effective legal herb are pilloried for trying to help people in pain get relief.

If there is any scandal to be reported on here, it is not the too few patients that are getting medical marijuana to deal with pain. It is the gross violations of HIPPA and medical privacy regulations demonstrated by the receptionist at the clinic. It is the lack of a dispensary system that leaves patients to be preyed upon by shady growers hanging out in front of clinics overhearing private medical information. It is a reporter disposing of medicine “in a responsible way” instead of giving it away (which is legal) to a fellow patient who could have used it for real medical purposes rather than a prop for a medical marijuana hit piece that could have been written by Dan Harmon.

Russ Belville
NORML National Outreach Coordinator
Oregon NORML Lifetime Member and past Associate Director