Medical Marijuana
Peter Hilz  /  Redux Pictures
Request for medical marijuana are up from 50 to 300 percent this year over last, say dispensary owners.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/15/2009 9:07:13 AM ET 2009-04-15T13:07:13

The number of ailing people turning to medical marijuana to ease their symptoms has spiked this year, say dispensary owners in some of the 13 states where it's legal.

Requests have jumped anywhere from 50 to 300 percent, they say, since President Barack Obama took office and signaled that he won’t use federal marijuana laws to override state laws as the Bush administration did. Others say the economic downturn may also be responsible as more people without insurance are seeking alternatives to costly medications.

In the past few months, marijuana co-ops, clubs, businesses and even lawyers who have advocated for looser dope regulations say they've been inundated with requests for information and certifications that permit people to use marijuana for medical purposes.

“I have been flooded with calls,” reported Seattle attorney Douglas Hiatt, a long-time marijuana advocate. “It’s ‘Where can I find a doctor [to prescribe it]? How can I start a co-op?’ You wouldn’t believe it.”

Under the George W. Bush administration, federal authorities maintained that federal marijuana laws took precedence over state law, even in states that had approved therapeutic cannabis. But Obama indicated during the presidential campaign that he supported the controlled use of marijuana for medical purposes, saying he saw no difference between medical marijuana and other pain-control drugs.

“My attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best palliative care and the way to relieve pain and suffering is medical marijuana, then that’s something I’m open to,” Obama said in November 2007 at a campaign stop in Audubon, Iowa. “There’s no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from pain.” Video: Inside one cannabis dispensary

In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to limit Drug Enforcement Administration raids of prescription cannabis dispensaries to those businesses and organizations that break both state as well as federal laws.

“Our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law,” he said.

300 percent increase
Hard numbers and state-to-state, year-over-year sales comparisons are difficult to come by because state laws vary and because some states are still creating their programs; New Mexico expects to license its first legal marijuana producer this month. But the state of Colorado has tracked registered medical marijuana users since implementing its law on June 1, 2001. As of the end of 2008, there were 4,720 applications received, almost all of which had been approved. But as of February 28 of this year, that number stood at 6,796, an increase of 2,076 in just two months.

“I have had a 300 percent rise at my business,” reported the owner of Colorado’s Boulder County Caregivers, a marijuana dispensary. (She asked not to be named since she also works in local government.)

Her numbers are rising despite obstacles that remain in the path of those seeking access. For example, many doctors are reluctant to authorize their patients to use marijuana either because its efficacy has not been proven in rigorous trials, shown to be superior to other drugs, or because they themselves fear risking their own federal license to prescribe medications like opiate pain killers if they are seen to be defying federal drug law.

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“I have legitimate cancer patients who cannot get a doctor to sign,” the Boulder dispensary owner said. “Their doctor will say ‘Talk to your oncologist,’ and the oncologist will say ‘Talk to your other doctor.’ So I see the same doctors’ names over and over. Patient records show the same two clinics because so many go there since their own doctors will not do it for fear of federal retribution.”

Some organizations leap this hurdle by providing their own doctors.

“I have 12 doctors working with us right now,” said Paul Stanford, director of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, based in Portland, Ore. THCF has started clinics in eight states, often by bringing along one of its own paid doctors who happens to be licensed in that state.

Medical marijuana laws in the U.S.Stanford claimed his clinics are booming, too, with about 50 percent more calls and patient certifications than before the new administration took office.

In addition to the Obama administration's position on medical marijuana, demographics may also be a co-factor in the overall rise. Many people born after World War II have had at least some exposure to marijuana, and now that the government has indicated it will be more lenient, might be more inclined to turn to the party drug of their youth to ease the maladies of age. Few people under 65, “are truly naïve to cannabis,” suggested Dr. Frank Lucido, a Berkeley, Calif., physician who has long been a leader in California’s medical marijuana community.

Economy may be playing role
Lucido has seen an increase in patients, too, but a slight one, a much smaller bump than he would have expected. It’s possible, he speculated, that because so many dispensaries have opened in California, some offering quickie — and often dubious — medical exams to certify patient need, that the total number of medical marijuana consumers has boomed, but that many are avoiding more stringent practitioners like himself. (While the state of California tracks the number of medical marijuana identification cards issued each year that allow patients to purchase from dispensaries, no numbers are out yet for 2009.)

One final possibility for the increase in numbers is economic. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that at least 45 million Americans under age 65 are now without health insurance.

As the number of medical marijuana outlets expands, and fear of federal drug charges diminishes, some of those people, faced with paying out of pocket for pharmaceutical drugs or for cannabis, “will turn to medicine that is good for a whole bunch of ailments, that you can grow yourself and not spend a tremendous amount of money on,” Hiatt said. “That’s very appealing to lots of people.”

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