Jim Swansiger took a road trip to Missoula on Monday. When he returned home to Great Falls, the 60-year-old retired construction worker was a legitimate medical marijuana patient.
“My paperwork’s all in order,” Swansiger said. “I’m just going to stop by the Capitol on my way home and drop it off.”
He’ll have to wait a few weeks before the state Department of Health and Human Services sends him an identification card in the mail, but he’s covered under the Montana medical marijuana law until then. That means he can legally grow six marijuana plants and possess up to an ounce of pot, which he intends to start using for pain relief in lieu of a prescription drug called oxycodone.
Swansiger suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a disorder he says causes pain and numbness in his legs and feet – “It’s like someone is jamming pins in the tops of my feet,” he says – and his preferred course of treatment is marijuana.
And so he drove to Missoula, where a nonprofit organization called The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation was offering an all-day clinic to help patients obtain their permits.
With medical records in hand, Swansiger and dozens of other patients sat in a conference room at the Grant Creek Inn. They paid a consultation fee, which is adjusted based on income, and waited to meet with Dr. Eric Eisenbud, an ophthalmologist from Boulder, Colo.
Eisenbud works exclusively with THCF and is licensed to practice medicine in eight states, including Montana. Every month he travels to a handful of states that have medical marijuana laws on the books. At a typical clinic, Eisenbud says he meets with between 30 and 45 patients, and solely discusses whether they qualify for medical marijuana; he does not act as a patient’s primary physician.
States like Washington, Michigan, Colorado and Montana all have similar medical marijuana laws, Eisenbud said, making it easy to determine whether a patient qualifies. The only state with a medical marijuana law that differs significantly is California, he said, and only in that it is less restrictive.
“In California, if you have flat feet and you can convince a doctor that marijuana makes your flat feet feel better, you can get your card,” he said.
Patients who turn out for the THCF clinics are there by appointment. Their medical records have been faxed and reviewed by staff members, and a consultation with an attending physician like Eisenbud is the final step before postmarking their application for a medical marijuana permit.
“By the time they come in for an appointment with us, they have been vetted,” said THCF’s executive director, Paul Stanford, who lives in Portland, Ore., but visits Montana every month to hold the clinics. He’ll visit Bozeman on Tuesday, and Billings after that.
According to Stanford, THCF has helped more than 100,000 patients in nine states obtain a permit to legally use and grow medical marijuana, and about 70 percent of them are using marijuana to alleviate chronic pain.
Jamie Rogers drove to the clinic from Helena to get approved as a medical marijuana patient. She says using marijuana relieves chronic pain that began in October when her ex-boyfriend assaulted her, shattering bones in her nose and face.
“I have thunderbolts of pain that shoot up through my face,” Rogers said. “When it’s not painful, it’s totally numb.”
Accompanying Rogers to the clinic was her 15-year-old son, Lance Pennington. Rogers said she brought her teenage son to educate him about Montana’s medical marijuana laws, and to see if his frequent nausea and car sickness qualifies him as a patient.
“I think he has the right to be educated, and he needs to understand the laws,” Rogers said.
Rogers said she’s tried both prescription and over-the-counter medications to relieve the nausea, but using marijuana works best for her son.
Under Montana law, minors can qualify for medical marijuana if a parent or guardian gives consent, submits a written statement from a physician, and agrees to control the acquisition and dosage of marijuana.
“If he qualified, it would be better than having him break the law,” Rogers said.
Many patients learn about the clinics through their state-licensed “caregivers,” who can legally grow marijuana plants for patients who register them as their provider.
The Montana Cannabis and Hemp Foundation in Missoula serves as just such a caregiver, but grows marijuana for many patients. Kevin Kerr says would-be patients frequently visit their storefront location to see about getting registered, and he often refers them to the THCF clinics.
“Most people we see are bona fide and really have true pain, and they have years of medical documentation to prove it,” Kerr said. “There are people who are just out there shopping for a card, and if you want your medical marijuana card bad enough, you can get it.”
Kerr said many physicians will not recommend medical marijuana as a course of medical treatment, which he blames on the medical community’s lack of education about the benefits and efficacy of marijuana.
That means the lion’s share of patients who qualify for medical marijuana have visited two doctors – one who diagnoses their qualifying condition, and another who recommends that they treat the condition with marijuana.
“It’s a two-step story, so everyone has to see a physician before they see us,” Kerr said. “It’s not our call, it’s a physician’s call, which is why most doctors will not sign both forms. It’s the only safety gate.”
Beverly Williams is a 70-year-old lung cancer survivor who started using medical marijuana nearly two years ago, when doctors in Spokane removed a portion of her lung. She underwent chemotherapy, which she says made her weak and nauseous.
Eventually, her cancer doctor recommended that Williams consider using medical marijuana, which has since replaced her entire pharmacopoeia of prescription drugs.
“I don’t have to walk around like a zombie,” she said. “I have a little water pipe, and I fill it with clean water and put a little dash of medical marijuana in there, and I smoke it. And I can’t tell you exactly what it does, but you lose that feeling of nausea.”
Williams says smoking marijuana, or eating it in baked goods, has helped return an appetite that radiation took away. It reduced the chronic pain that she’d been suffering ever since the operation, and it helps her sleep.
“I’m up to 98 pounds from 92,” she said. “And I’ve always been a great eater. I’m from an Italian family. So that little smoke just encourages you. I’ll have a little muffin and a glass of milk before I can go to bed, and that replaces this high-powered sleep agent they prescribe you.”