Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Author: Don Colburn
Published: Friday, November 12, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Oregonian
Contact: [email protected]
First stop this Wednesday evening is a Portland residence for quadriplegics and other disabled people. Clifford Spencer parks his Ford truck and hops out. He's wearing a tan sport coat and jeans and carries a leather briefcase. A client buzzes him through the security door.
Spencer walks down a hallway and knocks on door No. 7. Inside are two men in wheelchairs. Each has a card issued by the state of Oregon, allowing him to use marijuana, an otherwise illegal drug, for medical purposes.
Mike, 39, wrecked his spinal cord in a rollover crash; Kenny, 29, in a diving accident.
Spencer sits in a rocker, flips open the briefcase on his lap and peers over his reading glasses.
Mike slouches in his wheelchair, shirt off, a tattoo of mom and dad on his chest.
"How often are you medicating?" Spencer asks.
"Every day," Mike says. "I start first thing."
"How would you rate your nausea, on a scale of 1 to 10?"
"Four to five."
Spencer jots Mike's answers on a checklist.
Neurological pain? One to two.
Muscle spasms? Eight to nine.
Anxiety? Two to three.
Mike rates marijuana "very effective" against nausea and muscle spasms, less so against other symptoms. He says pot lets him cut back on prescription drugs, such as Valium and Vicodin.
"OK, let's see what we got," Spencer says. He reaches into his briefcase and fishes out two plastic bags.
Oregon is one of nine states -- Montana voted this month to become the 10th -- where use of medical marijuana is legal.
Nearly 10,000 Oregonians have medical marijuana cards. But since sales of the drug remain illegal, cardholders either must grow their own or designate a caregiver to provide it to them.
Clifford Spencer is among more than 5,000 unpaid caregivers whose participation is crucial to the Oregon program.
Spencer delivers marijuana weekly to 17 patients in eight places -- nursing homes, group homes and foster care -- in the Portland area. Many are seriously ill, with AIDS, cancer or spinal cord injuries.
John Sajo, head of Voter Power, a medical marijuana advocacy group, calls caregivers unsung heroes.
"The whole structure of the program is based on patients growing their own or designating a caregiver who cannot be reimbursed," Sajo says. Caregivers are in short supply, he says, because it takes work, expense and a certain gumption.
"It's not easy," Spencer says, "but I am really stubborn." And the gratitude of sick and disabled patients, he says, more than pays back his effort and expense.
Spencer is 52, a wholesale jeweler who lives in rural Clackamas County. He and two other caregivers formed a kind of co-op that provides medical marijuana weekly to the 17 patients. Spencer says he spends about 20 hours a week on the marijuana project.
Spencer himself was one of the first cardholders -- card No. 44 -- when the Oregon medical marijuana program started in 1999. He takes pot -- which he calls "green medicine" -- for severe headaches and chronic neck and back pain from a herniated disc and injuries suffered in two traffic crashes.
He counts himself lucky compared with clients such as Mike and Kenny, who asked not to be identified by their full names out of fear that their marijuana use could jeopardize their federal housing subsidy.
"I can walk around," he says. "I have a full-time real job to pay my expenses. I can move my arms."
Directions and Rules
Spencer turns over the marijuana to Mike and Kenny.
"It was dry and crispy when I bagged it this morning," he tells them. "Keep an eye on it -- make sure it doesn't mold."
Their allotments this week include 7 grams of Wonderbud and 7 grams of more potent Dam -- short for Amsterdam. Fourteen grams, or half an ounce, for each.
"For today, use the Dam," Spencer says. "Tomorrow morning, use the Wonderbud. Then in the evening, go back to the Dam."
He reminds them of the rules: no selling or sharing the marijuana, no using it in public.
"We'll be supplementing with some baked goods later in the week," Spencer says. Brownies, Moroccan candy with raisins and nuts, and banana bread. Plus "green butter," a substitute for regular butter in cooking.
"It works well with Rice-A-Roni noodles," he says.
Spencer sets Mike's supply in the cabinet below his sound system with the American flag decal on it. Kenny, who lives down the hall, stuffs his into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Oregon's medical marijuana law allows a cardholder to possess up to 1 ounce of the drug and to grow three mature and four immature plants.
Patients must have a debilitating condition -- such as cancer, AIDS or severe pain -- and get a doctor's signature.
Spencer calls the Oregon law overly restrictive for patients and caregivers. Being allowed to carry only 3 ounces at a time requires him to make extra trips on his delivery rounds. During the recent election, he backed Measure 33, which would have loosened the rules.
The measure would have increased the amount of usable marijuana that cardholders could possess, from 3 ounces to 1 pound -- and up to 6 pounds under certain conditions -- and the allowable number of mature plants from three to 10. It also would have allowed naturopaths and nurse practitioners to sign a patient's application. Currently, only medical doctors and osteopaths can do so.
The measure would have created a network of dispensaries, regulated by the Department of Human Services, to sell marijuana to patients or caregivers.
Opponents, including some original backers of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, said those changes were tantamount to legalization and could lead to a backlash against the program. Voters rejected the measure, 57 percent to 43 percent, in the Nov. 2 election.
The Bush administration opposes any use of marijuana and has gone to court -- unsuccessfully -- to overturn state medical marijuana programs.
"This is scary business," said Ken Magee, Oregon special agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "We don't allow an 18-year-old to possess a six-pack of beer, let alone 6 pounds of marijuana.
"You could get some naturopath to say, 'Little Johnny hurt his knee playing ball, so let him smoke marijuana,' " he said. "It's mind-boggling."
Staggering The Grow Cycle
A caregiver's hardest challenge, Spencer says, is coming up with enough marijuana, week to week, to supply all the patients on his route.
To have enough supply year-round, he must stagger the four-month growth cycle. For every four immature plants, he tries for one tiny plant, another about three feet around and two in between. For the three mature plants, he likes to have one flowering, one ready to pick and one halfway.
His indoor garden covers two sections: two "veging" rooms downstairs and a blooming room upstairs.
Mold is a problem. So are thrips and spider mites and fungus. And climate control.
The ideal growing temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees with the lights on, and 63 degrees with the lights off.
Spencer works on a reverse schedule. "The plant's day is your night," he explains. "If you interrupt their sleep, so to speak, it confuses the plants."
In the summer, for example, he waits until the indoor garden cools at night and then turns the grow lights on.
The cost is not trivial. Spencer had to buy hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment, including a transformer, an array of 1,000-watt bulbs, blowers to control air flow and temperature, a thermostat and reflective Mylar.
"Not to mention the increase in your light bill," he says.
Spencer grows his plants hydroponically -- in nutrient-rich foam, rather than soil.
"Farmers say dirt's the only way to go," he says. "But then you're buying bat guano, nutrients and kelp."
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