State’s medical marijuana growers take matters into their own hands

These days, Billy Sample walks with a prosthetic leg and a cane. Under state law, he is allowed to use medical marijuana for his pain, but in the year since the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act passed, a lawsuit has prevented dispensaries from opening, leaving patients like Sample on their own to grow their medicine.

Sample lost his leg on June 3, 2009 after a motorcycle accident at the end of May. His first motorcycle accident, in which he was dragged 30 feet, occurred when he was 17. While recovering the first time, he got a staph infection that he says reoccurred seven times. Each time, he would have to go to the hospital and have it cleaned out. In May 2009, he was involved in another accident involving a friend’s bike when his leg got stuck and snapped.

That accident ended up costing him his leg. Upon his release from the hospital after the amputation, Sample was prescribed the painkiller oxycontin, which he said made it difficult for him to sleep. From there, the medicine began piling up and before he knew it, it had all become too much.

 Gaining Control

In the months that followed, Sample was placed on several different medicines. He could not afford to take certain ones, so he resorted to finding the medicine online. Eventually, confusion arose between what he was taking and what the doctor had prescribed.

“It was worse than losing my leg,” Sample said of the number of pills he was taking and the effect they had on him. Finally, he said, he reached a breaking point.

“I had a psychotic breakdown because I was on so many drugs,” he said.

Sample went to an osteopathic doctor specializing in natural approaches to medicine, who suggested he consider using medical marijuana to help with his chronic phantom pains.

Last summer, Sample filled out the paperwork, paid his dues and received an identification card from the state health department identifying him as a medical marijuana patient.

Since he began growing and using medical marijuana in his East Valley home, Sample is off all other medications. He feels better physically and learning how to grow has given him something to do with his free time, he said.

Financially, being able to grow his own medicine will be efficient for him in the long run, he said, because he will no longer have to deal with the middle-man. There is also peace of mind knowing where his medicine is coming from.

While the law has allowed Sample to receive an ID card, he is allowed to grow his own marijuana only because a pending lawsuit has blocked the opening of dispensaries. If one had opened within 25 miles of his home, he would have to shut down his grow room.

The Law

In November 2010, Arizona voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, or AMMA. The law permits those suffering from cancer, HIV, AIDS, severe chronic pain, and other debilitating illnesses to obtain an identification card that allows them to use marijuana for medical purposes. If their illness prevents them from using the medicine on their own, they can seek a caregiver who will be responsible for administering and/or growing the marijuana.

On April 14, 2011 the Arizona Department of Health Services began accepting applications and approving patients and caregivers for identification cards. Between April 14 and November 25, 16,313 applications for identification cards were approved.  Of those applicants approved, around 13,500 requested to grow their own.

If no dispensary is located within 25 miles of a patient’s house, they can request authorization to grow their own. If a dispensary opens within that radius, however, patients must give up their right to grow the next time they renew their card.

Patients are allowed to grow up to 12 plants at a time in their home. Sample currently has 10 plants in his home.

If patients are not growing their own marijuana, they are permitted under the state law to receive 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from dispensaries.

While the ADHS continues to issue ID cards for patients and caregivers, the dispensary and dispensary agent portion of the act was suspended by the ADHS on May 27, 2011, pending a declaratory judgment lawsuit seeking an answer as to whether or not state employees could be prosecuted under federal law for issuing dispensary cards.

The federal government has taken the stance that state laws legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is in direct violation of the Controlled Substances Act, which states that it is illegal to possess, grow or distribute marijuana for any reason, according to court documents.

In a letter dated May 2, 2011 to William Humble, the director of the ADHS, US Attorney Dennis Burke wrote that the federal government will “continue to vigorously prosecute” both individuals and organizations that are involved in manufacturing or distributing marijuana.

The federal government, however, will not spend time searching out and prosecuting those who are sick and using medical marijuana in complete compliance with the state law, as that would be an inefficient use of federal funds, court documents state.

According to the lawsuit that was filed, confusion lies in the fact that if the state does not fully implement all aspects of the AMMA they may open themselves up to other lawsuits, but if they implement all provisions the state and its employees may face federal prosecution.

On Wednesday, January 4, a state judge threw that lawsuit out. The immediate impact on growers like Sample is unclear.

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