Medicinal marijuana is gaining popularity in Durango, but despite the best efforts of its advocates, obtaining a prescription to use the drug legally isn't getting any easier.
Representatives from the Wheat Ridge chapter of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, or THCF, held its sixth Durango clinic to help about 50 local patients obtain or renew a Colorado Medicinal Marijuana permit. THCF is a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of patients in eight states.
Patients could not receive their state permits at Wednesday's clinic, held at the DoubleTree Hotel. The permits are issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Scott Carr, registration manager for the foundation, said the organization charges $200 for a medical history and screening consultation, assistance with the state application forms and a referral for a prescribing physician. Carr said the money is used to pay for legal fees and lobbying for legislation favorable to the medicinal-marijuana community and for conducting statewide clinics.
Finding a local doctor to prescribe marijuana is a challenge, and for the second time in two years a random sampling of local physicians failed to locate any willing to do so. Durango patients have to travel to the metro Denver area to find a physician willing to write a prescription.
Because the federal government does not recognize state laws that legalize medicinal marijuana, many physicians opt against challenging the mandate. Dr. Eric Eisenbud, an ophthalmologist who was working at Wednesday's clinic, is one of the few who will.
The federal-versus-state debate above marijuana jurisdiction previously allowed the Drug Enforcement Agency to enforce federal laws despite state statutes. Eisenbud said the announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Obama administration intends to end DEA raids on marijuana dispensaries was good news, but he doesn't expect it to change the prevailing mindset in the mainstream medical community.
"We had very little harassment in Colorado anyway because most of the trouble was in California," Eisenbud said.
"I'm still concerned that the federal cloud is preventing Colorado doctors from treating their patients."
Cortez resident Donat Ibarra, who has battled cancer for the last three years after having a tumor removed from his stomach, said it was the negative public perception of marijuana that made him wait so long to seek alternative treatment after an extended regimen of various legal but controlled pharmaceuticals.
"Everyone in my family kept asking why I didn't get my card, but the public looks down on it, and I think I worried about that," he said.
"With (my prescriptions) the pain would go away, but pills aren't for me. Also, smoking just relaxes me, but obviously with cancer I'm not going to smoke cigarettes."
Dr. Cynthia Cathcart, an oncologist at Durango Cancer Center, defended the medical profession's reluctance to prescribe marijuana and said she is also not aware of any local doctors who will prescribe it.
"If they're getting prescriptions for (state permits), I don't know where; the DEA still doesn't list it as an approved prescription, and a physician who prescribes could be risking their DEA prescription authority," Cathcart said.
"I've had patients ask me, but until there's federal legislation any doctor is risking federal prosecution," she said.
She said she is not opposed to the idea of marijuana as medicine, but she questions if it is legitimately effective in helping with symptoms associated with cancer, glaucoma and other ailments.
"Not really - to increase appetite, yes, but for well-being it depends on what you're willing to handle," Cathcart said.
For the patients who have tried it all, the state permit is worth every penny.
Janet Jones, who drove to Wednesday's clinic from Pagosa Springs, said she has tried every traditional method to heal a herniated disc in her back. After hearing that all other options were exhausted, she finally found one that works and wants to make sure it's legal.
"The pain is continuous. The painkillers don't work, and there's no surgery that will be able to help. I've smoked before, and it helps tremendously," Jones said.