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October 31, 2014

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The people behind the pot

They’re old, young, Republicans, Democrats, patients and providers. The message they share? This is about treating pain, not getting high.

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Leila Navidi

Homegrown: Chris Egan cultivates his own medical marijuana and teaches others to do the same.

His legs are visibly emaciated, even underneath baggy jeans. As his caregiver wheels him through the doorway of an anonymous storefront, a faint smell of marijuana hangs in the air. The managers of the Completely Legal co-op chat warmly with the newly registered medical marijuana patient while he waits for his caregiver to return with the cash for his medicine. “This is one of the reasons I moved to Nevada,” the man says before disappearing behind a curtain with his caregiver to determine which strain of weed can best ease his pain.

Much of the attention on the medical marijuana movement in Nevada recently has focused on raids of businesses suspected of illegal activity. Federal agents and police served a handful of search warrants in September, and a raid on Jolly Green Meds in November resulted in six arrests and the discovery of thousands of dollars worth of hash oil. Stereotypes of 20-something potheads using fictitious ailments as excuses to obtain medical marijuana cards and then smoke up permeate mainstream culture. But see people like the new patient at Completely Legal—people suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, migraines or lasting injuries—and it’s hard not to wonder if a medicine cabinet full of prescriptions is really the right choice for everyone. Looking beyond the corner pharmacy, a community of Nevadans is working to help the sick and educate the curious on what medical marijuana means here. These are the people behind the pot.

The patients

Judy Blewett had barely slept for the past 15 years. The 54-year-old was taking up to 17 over-the-counter pills per night to get only a few hours of rest, and it had begun taking a toll on her liver and kidneys. The pain from restless leg syndrome, or RLS, had become unbearable. Add to that endometriosis and a few other medical ailments, and it’s safe to say Blewett had reached a breaking point.

“My doctor suggested [medical marijuana] back in January and I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “Being raised Mormon, they have the Word of Wisdom and there are certain things they ask you to not do: drink coffee, teas, drugs.” But the cocktail of OTC meds coupled with prescription pills was hurting Blewett more than it was helping her, and after much deliberation, she decided to try medical marijuana in July. “Since then I’ve only had to take three Tylenol PMs.”

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Grow your own green: A local patient's home hydroponic setup.

Choosing to medicate at night before bed via marijuana-infused foods like brownies, cookies and popcorn balls instead of smoking, Blewett has found not only relief, but also a new career. “I’ve been able to start a business for myself making edibles and making it available to other patients,” she says. Her new business is called The Herbal Chef. “[The laws] don’t make it easy for you, so what I am is a personal chef,” she explains. “They provide the medicine, or if they assign me as their caregiver, then I can take that and make the edibles for them.

“People don’t think anything about taking the doctor’s prescribed medicine, and that can be a lot harder on your body than what nature provides,” says Blewett. “If I would have known this three years ago when my mother was dying, I would have had her on it so fast to help her.”

Jackie also knows what it’s like to rack up a laundry list of medications. “I’m honestly tired of taking pills,” says the 30-year-old (last name withheld by request), who has been on Percocet, Ambien and an assortment of other prescriptions after surgery to remove a brain tumor left her with nerve damage and severe pain. Jackie started exploring medical marijuana after a cousin suggested it. “My doctor also agreed that it may be a good idea,” Jackie says. Now, with instruction from Cultivation Education Services of Nevada, she prefers to grow her own medicine. “It’s actually very Zen-like!” she says, laughing.

Which is not to say Jackie spends her days blissed out in a haze of pot smoke. “With the medical marijuana, I’m able to smoke before I go to bed. I don’t smoke all day; I smoke only when I hurt and normally to go to sleep. ... If I’m in pain, I get up, smoke a little bit more and I’m okay, rather than go and pop four more pills and my liver be destroyed in how many years.” But while Jackie’s found relief, the current perception of medical marijuana has her concerned. “I worry that some may [judge] me,” she says, preferring to shield her status as a patient from most acquaintances. For those questioning the use of medical marijuana, she implores, “Just have an open mind.”

The Police

Raids. In recent months there have been numerous search-and-seizure raids on local dispensaries, including the one at Jolly Green Meds. So are all co-ops or dispensaries automatic targets of the police? “I don’t know if you can say dispensaries are illegal per se,” says Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Marcus Martin. “It’s only when it’s been determined they’re violating aspects of providing, that’s when they get into trouble.”

Facts & Figures

2,242: Patients holding medical marijuana cards in Nevada (as of August 2010).
176: Licensed Nevada physicians who have signed card applications.
14: States where medical marijuana is legal.
The law, approved by voters in 2000, allows patients or their caregivers to harvest marijuana.
Users can possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana, three mature marijuana plants and four immature plants.
To qualify, a patient must get a doctor’s approval to use marijuana and must register with the Nevada State Health Division.
Severe pain and muscle spasms were the most common reasons individuals cited in applying for the cards.
–Steve Kanigher

Officer Martin explains that Metro isn’t interested in kicking down doors and hauling away everyone in the medical marijuana community. “These businesses open and we don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but when they start to work the edges of the law, then that’s when they have a visit.”

While state law is compassionate on the use of medical marijuana, that doesn’t mean federal law agrees. “As long as the federal government tends to take its stance, they may very well ask us for assistance, be it by investigation, be it by manpower or whatever it’s going to be because it’s our jurisdiction, but they’re still going to do what they’re going to do.”

Some might suggest patients simply grow their own pot, but there’s also the issue of how to obtain seeds or plant clones to even start the process. When asking those in the medical marijuana community, the joke is that the plants simply fall from the sky or magically appear, but Martin says Metro isn’t particularly focused on the source of patients’ plants. “If I were on a search warrant and this person has a registry card and they’ve got seven plants, I could care less where they get them from. As long as the law says they can have them, that’s all I need to know.

“I think that as a department, it’s safe for me to say that we are not interested in the wrongful prosecution of anybody who’s suffering and needs medical marijuana,” says Martin. “What we see more and what we end up dealing with are the people who work for the opposite. I think that we have—maybe not an abundance—but certainly a significant number of people who are willing to use these unfortunate situations to their own benefit. For people who are truly suffering whom this law provides for, more power to them if this is what makes them feel better.”

The Plant Guy

Safe access to marijuana is crucial for patients, who can’t pick up an ounce at their local CVS. Do they obtain it on the black market? Or visit one of those operations labeled as dispensaries that keep getting raided? For Chris Egan of Cultivation Education Services of Nevada, the solution is to grow it himself.

Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana patient Chris Egan grows his own medicine and teaches others as well via of Cultivation Education Services of Nevada. Read the full story onthe people behind the pot here.

“I teach people to cultivate their medical marijuana in their own homes,” says Egan, 33, himself a medical marijuana patient. Like many others, Egan grew tired of the pile of medications following a traumatic injury in his youth. “My doctor advised me that if I kept on my current prescriptions and everything, I would have problems later on in life with my organs because of constant exposure to these medications. It was his suggestion that I find something a ‘little bit more natural,’ and those are his exact words.”

Now a card holder, Egan drew on some hydroponic skills he picked up from a roommate while attending college in San Francisco. “There were a lot of people, friends of mine and whatnot, that heard rumors and myths on how to grow [marijuana],” he says. “One day I got sick of hearing them, and I wanted to show them how to do it. ... I figured I was already a patient and wasn’t even growing at the time, so one thing led to another and one person asked me to teach and the next patient asked me to teach.”

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Home-grown strains named after silver screen starlets.

Egan acknowledges that growing isn’t for everyone because of the precise process required. Some patients are simply too ill to maintain and cultivate a plant (up to seven are allowed under Nevada state law). But for others, it’s the preferred way to ensure they know the source of their medication. Consulting with multiple lawyers to protect himself, Egan moved forward educating others on growing techniques for medical marijuana. “After prohibition was repealed, it wasn’t illegal to brew beer or have somebody come on your property and show you how to brew beer,” Egan says, clarifying that he does not dispense medication or give patients plants to start their own plot. “I just give them knowledge—knowledge they could easily obtain other places, but some people are hands-on. It’s for those people that I exist.”

The Provider

Walking past Suite 19 at 3655 S. Durango Drive, you probably wouldn’t give the storefront a second glance. While you may notice the Preferred Medical Marijuana Referrals service in the same complex ($80 for a consultation with the physician—the cheapest we found), the Completely Legal medical marijuana co-op, with reflective tinted windows and a lack of signage, is decidedly discreet. Completely Legal is not a medical marijuana dispensary, explains manager Jacob Lill. “We’re a nonprofit patient co-op. This is much like a farmer’s co-op. We rely on the patients who actually own the co-op themselves. So our medicine is actually coming from, instead of one or two sources, it’s coming from everybody that needs it and uses it and is 100 percent locally grown.”

As a patient himself, Lill’s main goal is getting the medicine to legitimate patients in need. Suggested donations are collected to help cover expenses such as maintaining a location for the co-op, which quietly opened in November, and compensating growers for the time and energy that go into producing the medicine. Donations vary depending on the patient, and Completely Legal has programs for seniors, veterans and terminally ill patients to keep their medical expenses down.

“I had a woman in here, she’s a cancer patient and she’s not doing so well. She was in tears because she was talking to her doctor for almost two years trying to get this. She’d gone the black market route and gotten it off the streets. An older woman who’s having some serious medical issues doesn’t need to be going to the back alley trying to get medicine that’s helping her.”

Lill and the staff at Completely Legal also strive to educate patients on what medical marijuana strains may be best for individual cases. He says it typically takes about 30 to 45 minutes to chat with cardholders or their caregivers to determine their specific needs and the proper treatment, such as whether to choose an Indica or a Sativa strain. “Indicas are great for nighttime; they’re great for pain; they’re great for when you need to sleep. Sativas, on the other hand, are on the other end of the spectrum. ... They’re going to allow you to be functional throughout the day, and they’re not just going to leave you giggling on a couch.” Completely Legal also provides patients with relevant literature for further education.

“We’re completely legal and are 100 percent on board with everything the state tells us to do,” says Lill, though they still take precautions to protect the privacy of co-op members by keeping records off-site. “All this negative publicity that’s happened after the raids, people are scared out here. There’s already such a stigma in Nevada because it’s been so illegal for so long. When the media covers stuff like this they make it look like a bunch of potheads opening pot stores. That’s not what it is at all.”

The Proponent

A registered Republican who served in the Navy and Army is not exactly the stereotypical picture of a marijuana legalization advocate, but that’s Chris Dyer, executive director of the Las Vegas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

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Flowering female marijuana plants

A registered medical marijuana patient coping with severe knee pain from his time in the military, Dyer began researching other methods of pain management because of the effects that mainstream meds have on the liver. With help from his physician, he obtained a card through a local referral service. “I don’t like having to have a card from the government that says I can use marijuana,” says Dyer. “I don’t have to have a card to go gamble, or buy tobacco or buy alcohol except to prove my age.”

Dyer disagrees with the current medical marijuana laws and would rather see full legalization for all. “The medical marijuana laws, they give us a plant limit that’s seven plants. So it doesn’t allow for trial and error. If your plants die before you can harvest them, you have to start all over again. The limit thing is ridiculous. Not allowing for [state-run] dispensaries, that’s ridiculous. The people that are running dispensaries I think have made a mistake, but the law made the mistake first because they should have a way for people that can’t grow their own medicine to buy it and they never did that.”

Dyer, who made a run for congress in 2008 in the 1st Congressional District (he placed third in the Republican primary), hopes Nevadans will elect people who “have the stones to go to Carson City and put forth legislation to legalize and fix medical marijuana laws.” But he admits for most politicians, pushing for marijuana legalization at this time is political suicide. “Especially in my party, the Republican party, when I bring it up to politicians, they don’t want to talk to me about it because it’s the party of old white people, and old white people poll below 50 percent. They don’t understand that marijuana is not going to kill anyone. They just can’t wrap their heads around that.”

The Physician

In a clean, modern office off Hualapai and Desert Inn, the afternoon news plays on TV in the waiting room. Dr. Victor Bruce, an internal medicine and pediatrics specialist, has a calming yet concerned nature difficult to find in larger, hurried offices. In private practice for 11 years, he treats many patients for pain management.

“As far as what modalities I use, I don’t really limit myself to, it has to be pills or shots,” says Dr. Bruce. “Whatever works with minimal side effects is the goal.”

Dr. Bruce explains that the pharmaceutical Marinol, an FDA-approved drug containing synthetic THC, is far less effective than natural cannabis, or medical marijuana. “Generally patients who do well pretty much never have any side effects,” he says of medical marijuana. “Used properly, it’s safe. I have never had or read a single report of death or toxicity from cannabis, and most adults who use it properly actually are more cautious than reckless compared to alcohol and other prescription medications.”

Raised in West Africa, Dr. Bruce was initially against the use of marijuana. “Marijuana would be the equivalent of crack over here,” he says, recalling myths he heard as a youth about the drug making people crazy. “For years and years, that’s what I believed. But I just kept an open mind and listened to what my patients told me. Years later, I definitely am an advocate for allowing more people to use it. I have patients across all socioeconomic, ethnic, age, financial, all boundaries. The typical stereotype is not what is true in the real world. Forget the kid who’s using it recreationally, but as far as the medical use, I have very productive, well-balanced citizens in all professions.”

How does Dr. Bruce determine whether patients might benefit from medical marijuana or if they’re just trying to get legal for recreational purposes? “It’s not easy, but neither is the whole world of pain,” he says. “Pain is one of those things that’s totally subjective. Medicine does not have any tool to measure it.” In some cases, Dr. Bruce says, he’d almost rather prescribe medical marijuana than pills like Lortab. “I know that with Lortab, if they go home and I’ve written to take two a day and they take 10, I know they’re going to get Tylenol toxicity. Their liver is going to shut down; they’re going to be in the ICU, no doubt. Marijuana, you can smoke as much as you want and you’ll probably just go to sleep and wake up totally fine.” He adds it’s better for patients to ingest medical marijuana via edibles, concentrated drops or a vaporizer than by smoking it to cut down on carcinogens.

Dr. Bruce believes with time and more education, marijuana will become more accepted throughout the community. While its use in Nevada is limited to certain approved conditions, such as glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, anorexia, chronic pain of any kind (migraines, back pain, joint pain, etc.), spasms and seizures, he hopes the list will be reviewed as cannabis has also proved helpful for anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder and insomnia, to name a few.

“I’ve seen some of the most amazing medical cases that I would otherwise probably never had seen through this program,” says Dr. Bruce. “Patients who are born with deformities, patients who’ve had very bad injuries … and they have given up on life because they are in so much pain all the time. They’re enjoying life now because of cannabis. Those are the cases that basically turned me around.”

Are the laws in Chapter 453A of the Nevada Revised Statutes unclear? Sure. For the moment, medical marijuana is Nevada is cast mostly in shades of gray, with patients, providers and law enforcement all trying to navigate around questions without clear answers and problems without clear solutions.

However, all seem to agree on one very important basic premise: that marijuana can help people. So now what? The key to moving forward lies in understanding why the reefer madness propaganda of the past should stay in the past and in bringing the issue of medical marijuana out into the open for frank and intelligent discussion. Perhaps one day a state-run medical marijuana industry like Colorado’s could generate significant revenue for Nevada and users like Jackie could take their medicine without concern over judgments from the community. Much like when neighboring California first began the legalization process, Nevada’s medical marijuana system has many hurdles to overcome. But for the patients currently registered, it’s already working—one puff at a time.

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