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Alternative medicine: Preston medical marijuana collective aims to change views amid legal gray areas
Inside, it’s a small, windowless space with a computer, a dog crate, and a couple of display cases. Inside the dog crate is a restless bulldog. Inside the cases are cannabis candies, capsules, cigarettes, lotions, and jar upon jar of dried marijuana flowers, or bud. A large sculpture of a seven-lobed leaf is mounted on the wall, and there’s a distinctive scent in the air.
Step out into the public area, and it’s plain and white, with floor-length curtains, potted citrus plants, a few chairs and some magazines. It looks like a doctor’s waiting room, except for the old arcade game in the corner, and the copies of “High Times” on the magazine rack.
“This is how it should be, a nice clean environment,” said Shane, sitting in the waiting room of The Kind Alternative in Preston. “Everything’s clean, professional, discreet.”
Shane, who declined to give his full name, is president of this month-old collective of medical marijuana patients. His wife Jocelyn is the secretary. Shane likes the comparison of the shop to a medical facility, because, in his opinion, it is one.
“We’re just trying to help people,” he said. Also, “We’re really just trying to take the Cheech and Chong appeal out of it.”
The Kind Alternative is a non-profit collective of patients growing their own cannabis for medicinal use, as allowed since 1998 under a Washington state law, RCW 69.51A. It also provides medical marijuana to other patients for medicinal needs, an activity that the law isn’t exactly clear on.
“The guidelines are very vague,” said Shane. “You know, the people of Washington voted this thing through 13 years ago and it still has so many gray areas....”
North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner disagrees.
“The law is not really as vague as people make it out to be. The interpretation of it is what’s being debated,” he said.
According to the law, a person growing medical marijuana for his or her own use, as recommended by a doctor, is safe from prosecution. So is a designated provider, growing the drug for one legal patient. The Kind Alternative, a patient collective serving many qualifying patients, but one at a time, may not be.
“Dispensaries are illegal,” says state Department of Health spokesperson Donn Moyer. “Co-ops are also illegal,” and so not subject to state oversight or reporting requirements.
Volunteers and supporters of The Kind Alternative emphasize that the organization is neither a dispensary nor a co-op.
“It’s a collective of patients run for patients by patients, so it’s a little different,” said Shane.
Chief Toner believes the one-patient-at-a-time condition skirts the 1998 law, which specifically refers to “humanitarian compassion” for patients’ “personal, individual decision.”
“We look at the intent,” Toner said, and “the intent is to allow folks to help each other out,” by providing medical cannabis for a friend or neighbor who simply can’t grow their own.
That’s exactly what the people at The Kind Alternative feel they’re trying to do, while strictly conforming to the letter of the law. All of the products available at the shop are produced and donated by the dozen collective members, from any cannabis they have in excess of the 60-day supply they are legally allowed as patients themselves. Nothing is sold to or by The Kind Alternative, which is a federal law.
State law, though, is problematic. King County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Hoag, who serves all eastern King County including Preston, sees several challenges with it, for both patients and law enforcement.
“You have the state RCW that makes it legal to use medial marijuana,” he said, but the requirement for patients to produce their own drug “creates a problem for legitimate users because not everybody can grow it.” Aside from the space requirements, Hoag noted that growing the plants takes time, and the legitimate patients who may be helped by the drug have to wait for the plants to mature, just like anyone else, since sales are illegal.
In 2007, the Department of Health set amounts for what constitutes the 60-day supply allowed by law—15 plants, and 24 ounces of ready-to-use cannabis. It should have clarified the original law, but both Hoag and Moyer feel it has weaknesses. Hoag says the qualification that it’s “a presumptive amount” puts the burden of judgment on law officers.
Moyer is not entirely happy with the determination either, despite “months and months and months of research and testimony... the fact is, there’s not a lot of good science on this topic.”
Finally, Hoag feels that a lack of direction from government officials further complicates enforcement of the law, and he’s in the majority.
“The whole state law is such a pain for us to enforce, and that’s on the record,” said Sheriff’s Deputy and spokesperson John Urquhart. “Sheriff Rahr has been really clear that this law needs to be fixed.” Urquhart added that until the government offers more direction on what is and isn’t legal for medical marijuana suppliers, “We’re not going to ignore them, but they aren’t very high on our list, because the law is unclear.”
Meanwhile, The Kind Alternative remains clear in its mission.
“I don’t feel we’re doing anything but good for people,” Shane said.
Before he and Jocelyn decided to commit themselves to this effort, he said, “I just kept hearing over and over the need for some kind of establishment out here, from people in the Valley to people on the other side of the mountains.... there’s a lot of need out here, serious need, too.”
Since opening, Shane says he’s had many people, some not even patients, thank him for his work at The Kind Alternative. Even before opening, Jocelyn said they found a welcoming environment, from both their neighboring tenants and their landlord.
“We were very open with him about what we were doing,” Jocelyn said.
So far, only one person has been outspokenly opposed to the facility, “and that person just needed to be educated,” Shane said. “They thought we were after their kid, which we’re not.”
State law dictates that only Washington residents age 18 or older, with a written recommendation to try medical marijuana can legally use it. To ensure they are dealing with legitimate patients only, Shane says, staff members at The Kind Alternative make a copy of the patient’s ID and doctor recommendation, then “we call the doctor’s office and actually verify with the doctor that they are a current patient... We’ve had a lot of people in that we turned away because they couldn’t provide proper paperwork, proper documentation.”
Only after a patient is validated by all legal requirements can he or she be admitted to the back room, with the products. After making their selections, patients offer a donation to cover the costs of their product. Sales are illegal by federal law, points out Phil, a volunteer at the shop, so all exchanges are by donation.
Phil is not a member of The Kind Alternative collective, but he does visit the shop several times a week from his home on the Olympic peninsula to “help out, help with the donations, help to stock the shelves, educate patients,” he said.
Education is the most important part of his work, he said. It includes informing people about the collective and the process for using it, how to request a doctor recommendation or locate a doctor willing to recommend the drug, and even on the potential benefits of using cannabis medicinally.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t know. They just know that nothing else is working,” he said.
As a cancer survivor, Phil has received many of the drugs that make up the group of “nothing else,” and they didn’t work for him, either. “Pharmaceuticals take a very big toll on the body,” he said, and each one had a side effect that his doctors would prescribe another drug to suppress.
Shane had a similar story, about his mother-in-law who survived cancer only to die from the effects of her treatment. “Jocelyn’s mom was in remission... She died of liver and kidney failure from all the drugs they had her on,” he said.
Phil’s story went on. About six months into his two-year cancer treatment, he tried medicinal marijuana. It didn’t have such debilitating side effects, or any side effects in his recollection, and that is one of the main reasons that both men are so passionate about making this controversial choice available in the Valley.
“The doctors who prescribe medical marijuana, their biggest goal in prescribing it is getting people off narcotics,” said Phil.
Of the people who are strongly opposed to medicinal use of this drug, Shane says, “if they are really in that kind of stance, they’re really not aware of what’s going on in their community, because this place is in an absolute epidemic of prescription drugs, methamphetamines, heroin.”
On that point, law enforcement agrees. People are escalating their drug use to more potent, harmful drugs.
“I’ve never seen so much heroin (as today) in my 20 years of law enforcement,” said Hoag.
Toner fears that the wider availability of a once-illegal drug can desensitize people to the dangers.
“Look at prescription drugs in general,” he said. “They’re a huge scourge right now, for the kids especially, because people think ‘oh, it’s not harmful... it’s from the medicine cabinet. We know people are dying from that.”
For Toner, though, the main concern is the crime that tends to come with a medical marijuana facility.
“I’ve talked to other police chiefs throughout the area, some from California and one from Colorado, who’ve had these things, and every single chief that I’ve spoken to that has had them for any period of time, says they are crime magnets,” Toner said.
It’s not that the facilities are breaking the law, though, it’s the community around them. “People are getting robbed coming in or going out... you’ve either got cash coming in, or dope going out, so you’re now a target,” he said.
Production areas are no safer. Toner said a marijuana grower could be more likely to be robbed or murdered, since the criminal won’t know or care whether the drug is being grown legally as medicine or not, and will assume it’s an illegal grow whose owner won’t report a robbery to police.
“If I had a next-door neighbor that was growing it for medical purposes, I would be worried about it, just being that close to it,” Toner said.
His concerns were enough to discourage at least one North Bend resident from opening his own medical marijuana facility. Toner said the man had come to him to discuss all the legal implications of such a business, but changed his mind after hearing about the risks he’d be taking with illegal users.
The Kind Alternative is also concerned about security, and so does not discuss where its products are grown and manufactured. The collective takes several steps to ensure the safety of the building, its occupants and contents.
“I have a full-time security volunteer,” Shane said. “There’s no medicine or anything of value left overnight, but they can steal my lemon tree, if they want it,” referring to the plant in the only publicly-accessible part of the shop.
Shane has done his own research and found “in the places that these pop up, statistics have shown that the crime rates have actually dropped.... because the police now have more time to focus on true crimes, like for robberies or assaults.”
In its first month of operation, The Kind Alternative hasn’t experienced any crime problems yet. Depending on how several bills clarifying medical marijuana law progress through the state legislature this session, it might not ever.
Bills under review would either legalize marijuana entirely and levy taxes against users, or create registries of users, providers, and doctors who recommend the drug, under the oversight of the Departments of Health and Agriculture.
Shane wouldn’t be disappointed if the new medicinal marijuana bills were adopted, “As long as the people can have a say in it... On a personal level, I wouldn’t want the government controlling my medicine.”