Along Comes Mary
The Supreme Court’s ruling that the feds can indeed bust medical marijuana users and providers sent shock waves through a large portion of the wheelchair-using community. But experts say puffing out the pain is likely to keep on rollin’ in some states without much serious interference from Uncle Sam.
[An early report on the ‘pain management’ business that oddly didn’t involve the Sackler family name. First published by New Mobility magazine in September 2005, it was hard to imagine then just how easy THC would become legally accessible by now, whether in a wheelchair or not.]
“And then along comes Mary…
and does she want to set them free
and let them see reality
from where she got her name
and will they struggle much when told that such
a tender touch as hers
will make them not the same…”
~ The Association, 1966
By Mark Cromer
In the late summer of 2003, Michael Teague stood in front of federal Judge David O. Carter in an ornate Orange County, California, courthouse and crossed his fingers.
A 33-year-old pool cleaner experiencing chronic pain from a back injury, Teague had a written “recommendation” from a physician to use cannabis to ease his suffering. Prosecutors determined he also had more than 100 pot plants at his home, a loaded 9 mm Hechler and Koch handgun, and scales. Friends of Teague’s had made “donations” to him for as much as $200 per ounce for some of their own medicine-to-go.
The herbal healing crowd called Teague a patient being persecuted by an overzealous Uncle Sam. The government considered Teague a dope dealer waving around a phony note from a quack as an excuse to shirk the law.
Nearly two years before the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government’s drug laws trumped states’ medical marijuana laws, the case of United States v. Teague painted in high-relief the coming conflict between states rights and federal drug policy.
While Teague is not a wheelchair user, his arrest, prosecution and sentencing had deep ramifications for wheelers, a group that some experts anecdotally gauge has a large percentage of people with spinal cord injury and MS who use pot to combat muscle spasms, chronic pain, loss of appetite and depression.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office had declined to prosecute Teague, but John Ashcroft’s Justice Department was looking for an example to set among the Golden State’s medical pot-using community—a not insignificant number of whom are wheelchair users. In one Los Angeles-area “cannabis club,” workers estimate that nearly 20 percent of its patrons are chair users. A leading physician who “recommends” cannabis (it is illegal for doctors to officially prescribe a Schedule I drug, but legal for them to recommend it to treat ailments under state law) estimates that just under 10 percent of the people he treats are chair users.
With the Teague case, the attorney general was also intent on sending a message to the federal bench on the issue of state medical marijuana laws, demanding that he be informed anytime a federal jurist set aside mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, as well as the judge’s reason for the “downward departure.”
In no mood to be intimidated by Ashcroft—or shellacked by the defense attorneys, for that matter—Judge Carter decided to split the difference: He sentenced Teague to 18 months in a federal prison but jettisoned the guidelines that mandated Teague be sentenced to at least five years behind bars.
“This case embodies the perfect storm of controversy,” Carter said as he handed down the sentence. “It has all the basic fundamental questions about federalism and states rights.”
As his family wailed in disbelieving grief, U.S. Marshals led Teague away to prison, but it was the U.S. Attorneys who walked out of the courtroom looking somewhat flummoxed that they’d not scored the knockout they were hoping for.
Now, two years after the little known and even less-discussed fate of medical pot user Michael Teague, wheelchair users—and every other toker with a physician’s recommendation—are nervously pondering the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision in June that upheld federal supremacy when enforcing drug laws.
But like the Teague case, what it actually means is anything but certain.
The most recent Supreme Court 6-3 ruling—against Angel Raich and Diane Monson, two California women who sued the federal government seeking protection from federal prosecution as a result of using pot under California’s medical marijuana law—was largely misinterpreted by the public as a wholesale overturning of the state’s law.
Raich and Monson maintained that since their weed was essentially homegrown bud that never crossed state lines, federal jurisdiction did not apply. While the court rejected that argument, it left California’s pot law undisturbed.
Even with state Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s announcement following the court’s ruling that nothing had changed regarding California’s Proposition 215, which voters approved almost a decade ago, cannabis users see some dark linings to those silver clouds.
“People are certainly worried. You might even say they’re scared,” says “Hank,” a middle-aged C6-7 incomplete quad who only just obtained a physician’s recommendation to use marijuana in March. Hank was injured in a boating accident well over 20 years ago.
For Hank, smoking pot to alleviate muscle spasms and progressive arthritis was simply a matter of whether he wanted to be functional or not—something that he determined long before he got his doctor’s recommendation.
“I am dealing with a lot of wear and tear on my joints,” Hank says. “Marijuana relaxes my muscle spasms, which in turn reduces the pain and stress on my joints. If you are a quad, your muscle spasms can easily overpower your voluntary muscles. This is serious.”
Dr. William Eidelman, a Los Angeles-based physician who has been recommending cannabis to treat an array of symptoms since 1997, agrees that marijuana can be very effective for wheelchair users who have other ailments besides spasms.
“Spasms are primary when it comes to SI, but it also can be useful in combating lack of appetite, nausea brought on by other treatments, depression and even trouble sleeping,” Eidelman says.
Attorney J. David Nick, a criminal defense lawyer who has a long history of handling medical marijuana cases, including the Teague case, says the high court’s decision has sent shock waves through the cannabis community and its wheelchair users.
“The decision certainly goes beyond the wheelchair community; however the reality is that medical cannabis clubs are primary providers to wheelchair users,” Nick says. “While the decision was not meant to affect [the clubs], there is a real fear of aggressive prosecutions. They are not suffering harm as a result of a negative decision as much as it is a ripple effect.”
The good news, according to Nick, is that wheelchair users rolling into cannabis clubs across California—and particularly in urban centers—are unlikely to be targeted for federal busts. In fact, the Department of Justice may be reluctant—in this post-Terri Schiavo world—to prosecute a quadriplegic with a few joints.
“I think they learned their lesson in the last seven years or so,” Nick says. “Those kinds of cases are going to create a very vocal opposition and will piss off judges, the probation departments and families. Now they are looking to bring bad-asses to court, guys dealing in large quantities for large amounts of cash.”
Eidelman agrees that on a practical level, the high court’s ruling is unlikely to affect the day-to-day routine of medical marijuana users in states where the drug has been legalized for doctors to recommend. Nine other states besides California have also legalized pot for medical purposes.
“On another level, this could inspire the feds to become more bold and get more aggressive,” Eidelman says. “Not good.”
He should know. Eidelman’s support for pot as a viable medical treatment ran him afoul of federal authorities in 2002, when his medical license was suspended ex parte—meaning without a hearing. It took him two years to get his license to practice restored.
One of the people that Eidelman had recommended for marijuana therapy was quadriplegic Wayne Hobb, a Hesperia, Calif., man who sustained a spinal cord injury during a snowboarding accident in 1998. San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies stormed Hobbs’ home in the summer of 2000 and arrested the then 30-year-old man on cultivation of marijuana charges.
According to news reports at the time, deputies found 162 pot plants at Hobbs’ home, ranging from 5 inches to 6 feet tall. While initial news reports of Hobbs’ case suggested that deputies arrived in response to a burglar alarm at the home, Eidelman tells a different story.
An undercover female deputy had been sent into Hobbs’ home, says Eidelman, apparently posing as someone who knew one of Hobb’s caregivers. News reports at the time state that Hobbs had five caregivers, including two that he had designated as “growers” for his own crop of pot.
The deputy allegedly told Hobbs she was addicted to meth and asked him to score some for her. In return, Eidelman claims, the undercover deputy offered “sexual favors.”
Hobbs allegedly agreed to try to help procure some of the drug for her. When she returned several hours later, uniformed deputies in tow, Hobbs was being bathed by another caregiver. According to Eidelman, Hobbs had not procured any meth for the undercover agent, but was arrested for cultivation for marijuana.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office ultimately declined to prosecute the case, but the sheriff’s department refused to return the plants to Hobbs, stating they had been arranged in a growing pattern that suggested sales, not personal use.
Hobbs filed a lawsuit to get his plants back, even though they had already died.
If Nick’s assessment that the Feds will shy away from targeting wheelchair users proves to be true, medical marijuana users like Hank will be relieved, since aggressive federal enforcement across the board would almost certainly lead to a mass exodus back into underground pot purchasing, often a dicey proposition for chair users.
“For years I dealt with people I otherwise would not have,” Hank says regarding his clandestine pot purchasing. “As a result, it put me at risk for arrest and worse, which of course is very stressful itself.”
His recent experience using a legal cannabis club has made a huge difference in his peace of mind that he won’t be either busted or ripped off.
“You go into this back room, it is rather rigidly run, you can’t touch anything and they have an armed guard, and there are all these jewelry store glass cases with hash, hash extract, brownies, cookies, you name it,” Hank says. “It’s amazing. And everyone is in a great mood. Even the security guard is smiling. It’s cheaper than the street and you know what you are getting.”
But where Hank sees deliverance, Andrew Houghton sees a thicket of potential problems.
“My opinion is that it is heavily addictive and becomes abused by people who are using it as an excuse to smoke pot legally,” says Houghton, a 38-year-old T6 paraplegic who was appointed by President Bush to a presidential commission on people with disabilities in the workplace. Houghton was injured at 18 in a motorcycle accident.
Houghton carefully points out that he is not dismissing potential medical benefits for some wheelchair users, such as people with MS, or people fighting cancer or living with HIV/AIDS, where pot has been found useful in combating pain and chronic wasting.
“I think that pot does work to reduce muscle spasms with spinal cord injury as well,” Houghton says. “But the problem is that pot is heavily misused and often removes motivation to achieve one’s maximum potential.”
Moreover, Houghton says SCI’s largest demographic—males averaging 19 years old—makes a pot recommendation that much more alluring and potentially dangerous. In California, there are an estimated 100,000 medical marijuana users, though the percentage of them who are full-or part-time wheelchair users is difficult to gauge.
“Anecdotally we know that most of them have been exposed to marijuana prior to injury,” he says. “More than a few of them may want to keep [using pot] post-injury by going to a doctor and getting a recommendation.”
Houghton says that with an array of other legal medications available to combat muscle spasms, pot should be a last resort of treatment at best. “Unfortunately, I think it is pervasive right now,” he says.
Yet Hank says that other, legal medicines used to treat SCI muscle spasms do not work as fast nor as effectively as marijuana does, and often have much more serious side effects on the body.
Hank says he had been prescribed the muscle relaxant Baclofen, but that he declined, fearing that it would prove to be too hard on his liver and kidneys. “You also become resistant to it,” he says. “Then your spasms go through the roof. I never took that junk.”
But he watched and listened as SCI chair users who did rely on legal medication for spasms related their horror stories.
“One vet told me that the VA had been feeding him prescription drugs for 20 years,” Hank says. “It got so bad that he was shaking so hard he could hardly hold a pen in his hands. He’s clean now—off the prescription drugs—and smoking pot to ease his symptoms, and he is doing so much better.”
Like Houghton, however, Hank acknowledges that there are wheelchair users who claim medical benefits of pot to cover their abuse of the drug.
“From the very beginning it was clear to me that pot reduced the spasms, but I had some SCI vets telling me they were taking a couple of tokes just to get out of bed each day,” Hank says. “I was like, ‘dude, you are so full of shit. That’s just a lame excuse.”