Chronic pain at root of marijuana debate

Alternative and holistic medical practices have become mainstream over the last decade. Is medical marijuana next?

Colorado voters passed Amendment 20 in 2000, making it legal in the state to dispense medical marijuana – even though it’s still against federal law to do so.

Fast forward nine years. Caregivers and dispensaries are popping up faster than old Cheech and Chong movies on late-night TV.

Why the sudden rush to open dispensaries? Some surmise because of the Obama administration’s announcement that it would not pursue or arrest medical marijuana users and their suppliers as long as they conform to state law.

The result in Colorado? Fort Collins has issued city sales tax licenses to 26 businesses that list dispensing medical marijuana as part of their business as of Nov. 9, according to Chuck Seest, finance director for the city. The majority of those applications were made after April when Obama announced the leaner policy.

Loveland has five dispensaries, including one located on its Main Street, and Windsor has one. Greeley and Evans have put a moratorium on such businesses, leaving tiny Garden City in the middle of the two municipalities with – so far – open arms.

Along with ever-increasing numbers of dispensaries up and down the Front Range, the state is also seeing increases in the number of applications for medical marijuana registration cards. In 2007, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had 1,955 registered users. Today there are 13,102 Coloradans holding medical marijuana cards and the department is seeing 400 new requests for cards daily.

Of registered users, 1,013 reside in Larimer County and 489 in Weld.

Evolving law

One difficulty for businesses dispensing medical marijuana is how the law continues to evolve, seemingly daily. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in late October that providers, also referred to as caregivers, must have an interest in the patient’s care beyond dispensing marijuana. That forced an emergency rule-making session Nov. 3 by the Colorado Board of Health to comply with the change. That decision was rescinded by a judge on Nov. 10, and will be revisited at the regular December meeting of the Board.

On Nov. 16 Colorado Attorney General John Suthers found that “medical marijuana is tangible property that is generally subject to state sales tax.” Dispensaries now must obtain retail sales licences from the state, but the seeds used to grow medical marijuana are exempt from sales tax as agricultural products, according to Suthers’ opinion.

Boulder has put a number of temporary regulations in place for dispensaries, and Fort Collins city council placed discussion of a 10-month moratorium on allowing new dispensaries on its agenda for Nov. 17, after the Business Report went to press.

The Colorado Wellness Association, a trade group that claims to represent the medical marijuana industry, was unveiled on Nov. 12, with the goals of formulating regulations for dispensaries, developing quality-control guidelines to protect patients, and working with lawmakers on policy proposals for the upcoming legislative session.

Some medical marijuana dispensary owners, like Tina Valenti, co-owner of Inner Health in Windsor, are following the debate daily. Others, like Pam and James Fleming, owners of EnerChi Healing Center in Fort Collins, are more concerned with running their business and working toward a model that could spell success for similar businesses nationwide.

The Flemings were second in the state to provide medical marijuana when they opened their business 18 months ago. The first dispensary was opened in Colorado Springs. Although medical marijuana is a key component of their business, it is not the only treatment modality available. The couple have 15 practitioners on board offering massage, doula services, stress management, personal fitness, coaching for positive living, even guided backcountry trips and nature therapy. They, along with two others, grow their own marijuana strains.

EnerChi Center’s business model is being tapped as the template for a plan under development by a thus-far unnamed but well-financed group ($5 million reportedly contributed by a physician of national acclaim) to create a central system for all states that will regulate caregivers, ensure state taxes are paid and that marijuana growing operations meet certain standards – “and make it successful,” Pam said. She was unable to divulge the name of the organization or its founder, but did say their work will begin after the first of the year.

First-hand experiences

Personal trainers by profession, the Flemings saw first-hand how addiction to prescription pain killers can devastate families. Pam’s father, addicted to Oxycontin, committed suicide eight years ago. Her nephew became addicted to pain pills, as was James’ mother.

James tried medical marijuana for asthma and was “blown away by the results,´ said Pam, who then decided to try it herself for relief from irritable bowel syndrome, a condition she describes as being more painful than giving birth. Life has returned to normal so long as she medicates immediately before or after meals.

Pam Fleming says physicians from throughout Colorado refer patients to the Fort Collins center. The couple is now looking at opening a second EnerChi in Durango in coming months.

Although the media paints a picture of medical marijuana users as young males, Pam said EnerChi’s clientele runs the gamut from older teens with debilitating sports injuries to grandmothers and grandfathers coping with cancer treatments. In fact, state statistics show that the average user is indeed male – 73 percent – but 40 years old. All seek relief from chronic pain of one sort or another.

“We see every age group, as young as 18 and as old as 80,” Pam said. “Chronic pain is the biggest symptom, typically from car accidents.”

The herb is offered in several forms, including that to be smoked or vaporized, tinctures, capsules and topicals. EnerChi also sells edibles, including lemon poppy seed muffins and canabanana muffins.

Regulation needed

Like the Flemings, Valenti sees a need for regulation within the industry. “Time will weed out the bad ones,” she said, referring to dispensaries that come off more like head shops than a place one goes for herbal medicine. “For the integrity of the industry, you have to do it right and for the right reasons.”

But what are businesses doing when employees with medical marijuana cards test positive?

Cali Gee, director of medical review at eScreen in Overland Park, Kan., stated via e-mail that “We do not accept medical marijuana as a legitimate medical explanation (for positive drug tests). It is still again federal law to ‘prescribe’ marijuana; a donor may have a marijuana card in participating states, but it is a recommendation for use rather than a prescription. The only medical explanation we currently accept for a marijuana positive is a prescription drug called Marinol, which is acceptable under federal standards.”