The first time Crohn's Disease landed Jeff (not his real name) in the hospital, he was a freshman in high school. The next two days were a churn of vomiting and intense stomach cramping; eventually doctors and nurses inserted a flexible straw through his nose to purge stomach acids.
"I remember thinking," Jeff said, "whatever it takes, I'm never going back to this again."
Since then, more than a 10 years ago, he has yet to see the inside of a hospital again, and is now a successful business owner in downtown Bend. The key to managing the chronic pain: pot, about an ounce a week.
The medicinal quality of cannabis was a discovery Jeff says he made in college during one of the agonizing attacks that sent him to his room for 12 to 16 hours. After witnessing several of these episodes, his roommate handed him a bong and told him, "We're just going to sit here and see how it goes."
Growing up in a "straight-edge" household, drugs weren't something Jeff was totally comfortable with at the time, but he put aside his feelings about pot to try to find some sort of relief.
"It was like someone turned down the volume on the pain. I remember thinking, 'Wow, that was one of the easiest of these I've ever been through'," said Jeff, who privately advocates for managing medical conditions with pot, but asked that his real identity not be revealed for this article, fearing that he would be robbed of the plants he grows at home.
Jeff relies on the plant as part of his overall treatment like the estimated 2,700 medical marijuana patients in Deschutes County. And that group is poised to grow. Two weeks ago, the Oregon Senate voted to widen allowances to 10 mental and physical ailments legally treatable by medical marijuana; specifically approving it for post-traumatic stress disorder patients. Even Central Oregon's own deeply conservative Sen. Tim Knopp voted yes on the measure.
Two other bills in the Oregon Legislature this year aim to take Oregon's 15-year-old medical marijuana program out of a legal gray area and into the light of day, fully legalizing what takes place in the estimated 150 to 200 medical marijuana clinics around the state.
The program, which permits doctors to approve marijuana as a treatment for patients experiencing those conditions (see sidebar), allows individuals to grow their own marijuana—up to six mature plants and 18 seedlings—or assign someone else to grow for them. The program essentially legalizes the growing of marijuana, and several investigations, including one by The Oregonian last year, have shown that excess pot from these medical marijuana grow operations ends up on the black market, a long standing criticism of the program.
By altogether legalizing pot, a new bill, HB 3371, would do away with the black market and allow individuals over 21 to keep up to six mature marijuana plants and 24 ounces of marijuana at a time. The bill also would tax the drug and, therefore, require a three-fifths vote in both chambers to pass. This would happen by July 13 at the latest, the constitutional deadline for closing the 2013 legislative session.
Considering that Oregonians last fall rejected a ballot measure to legalize pot by about 56 to 44 percent, the passage of HB 3371 seems far-fetched, though, not entirely implausible. Measure 80 was widely recognized to have been vague, a factor that contributed to its demise. HB 3371, on the other hand, has already begun to work its way through the meatgrinder of House committees (it received a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee in March and has been passed onto the House Revenue Committee for further debate and amendment), and may emerge as a decent piece of legislation—one that the Legislature could refer to voters if it lacks the stomach to approve it on its own authority.
Advocates of legalizing marijuana say it is the state's largely successful medical marijuana program that has pushed the envelope far enough that the state Legislature would even consider such a bill. In that spirit, several other laws introduced this session would further stabilize the medical marijuana program, providing more support for the idea that pot can be managed safely and properly in Oregon. (See sidebar.)
"The Oregon Legislature is moving in the right direction," says Wayne Haythorne, a medical marijuana patient and owner of a statistics consulting company. "We've finally broken the logjam."
Last week, Haythorne led several dozen people in a discussion about medical marijuana at the downtown Bend library. As attendees made their way out of the room, many showed signs of pain—some lumbering on extremely swollen legs, others wincing while moving with stiffness.
While some of these individuals might qualify for a medical marijuana card under Oregon's chronic pain standard, a stigma still attaches to the use of marijuana as medicine, and many doctors remain reluctant to be associated with the program.
In his own case, Haythorne was told by his doctor that two vertebrae in his neck had fused and that he was headed for a painful and expensive surgery. Deciding to take a chance, Haythorne, a clean-cut 66-year-old in chunky white sneakers, said he turned to marijuana, which he purchased illegally.
"And I smoked an amazing amount of pot," he says. "Something like 20 bowls per day for a week. If I was sleeping and woke up, it was like, I need to be smoking pot."
It worked, he says.
After a week, he returned to his doctor who told him, "I don't know how you got the nerve inflammation down, but you are no longer a candidate for surgery."
Advocates like Jeff and Haythorne want to see the medical marijuana bills in the Legislature passed to increase access to the sort of pain relief and disease management they have found. But it's outright legalization they truly seek.
"It matters a lot to me not to be a criminal," said Jeff.
MARIJUANA BILLS ON DECK
• HB 3055 would restrict on the number of plants people can grow for patients with medical marijuana cards, including limiting the operation to six mature marijuana plants and 24 ounces of pot. Some felons would not be permitted to grow, and operations could not be located within 1,000 feet of a school.
• HB 3228 would prohibit the use of medical marijuana in the immediate proximity of minors.
• HB 3371 would legalize and tax pot at $35 per ounce, regulating the substance through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Would allow people over 21 to keep up to six mature plants and 24 ounces of pot and would fine people for distributing the drug to minors.
• HB 3460 creates a system for regulating the flow of marijuana among clinics (or dispensaries), growers, patients and caregivers. Would also require clinics to register with the state and ensure they are not located within 1,000 feet of a school.
• SB 281 adds post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of debilitating medical conditions warranting the authorization of medical marijuana usage.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of Oregon medical marijuana patients 53,117
Patients in Deschutes County 2,717
You can get a medical marijuana card if you suffer:
Agitation related to Alzheimer's
Persistent muscle spasms, including those related to multiple sclerosis
Source: Oregon Health Authority data as of April 2013