James and Lisa Masters were preparing to take their daughters fishing on the morning of Aug. 2, 2006, when two social workers and two police officers knocked on their door.
"We were just finishing folding laundry, getting ready for the day," says James, "and we had just recently medicated."
They had picked a bad time to take their medicine. Both of the Masterses are medical marijuana patients, whose doctors recommend they get high to treat various physical and neurological illnesses.
The social workers raised allegations of child abuse and neglect toward the Masterses' daughters, ages 4 and 6. The police officers, who the Masterses were told came along in case the parents got violent perhaps in a fit of reefer madness smelled the weed.
Inside, the Masterses had 18 marijuana plant clones and an imminent harvest of 12 2-foot-high, bud-laden plants, which they say were for people suffering from glaucoma, cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis and other crippling diseases.
The Masterses' home was serving as the Larimer County chapter of the Colorado Compassion Club, a statewide network whose members provide quality weed for medical marijuana patients, including themselves. Though the couple had doctors' recommendations for the medicinal crop, as allowed through a state constitutional amendment, the Larimer County Drug Task Force snagged the pot and Child Protection Services snagged the Masterses' daughters. They were separated from their parents for nearly two months before being returned with no neglect or abuse charges.
"They came here with the understanding that we were medical [marijuana] patients," says James. "There's no reason that two happy, well-adjusted girls should ever be taken away from their family because of cannabis."
James and Lisa Masters still face criminal charges for distributing a controlled substance. The bust raises the usual questions about the misplaced priorities of the War on Drugs. Even more, the Masterses' upcoming trial, scheduled for June 4 in Fort Collins, is being called a "test case" for the rights of medical marijuana patients and caregivers.
The outcome could affect how Colorado regulates the cultivation, distribution and sale of the drug for medicinal use. Ultimately, the trial could lead to expansion of the state's medical marijuana program and a wider acceptance of pot as a healing remedy, instead of just another way to get stoned.
Whether the issues are legal or logistical, medical marijuana advocates say the system isn't achieving its potential.
"Patients need high-quality stuff, and [many of them] can't grow it themselves. Then, we don't have enough dispensaries," says Dr. Robert Melamede, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor who calls himself a "nationally known pro-cannabis scientist."
Melamede, a biology professor and former head of the UCCS biology department, teaches various classes at the school including Biology 408, "Endocannabinoids and Medical Marijuana."
"What endocannabinoids" that is, cannabis chemicals produced by our bodies "do is help protect us from free-radical damage, which, in general, is responsible for aging. They literally regulate everything in our bodies," says Melamede. "There are huge medicinal benefits to cannabinoids, both endo- and exo-."
Melamede has written peer-reviewed scientific research that shows pot doesn't just quell nausea and muscle pain, but actually can remedy biochemical imbalances. It can effectively treat high blood pressure and depression. Melamede argues it can even kill cancer cells.
Never mind that the federal government says pot sizzles your brain like a fried egg. Melamede says cannabis actually protects brain cells and serves as an effective anti-aging drug.
"There are many uses that have not been officially recognized," he says. His Web site even hints that weed could help reduce the lethal degree of bird flu, should it one day spread among humans.
As of last August, the state's official registry listed 1,352 medical marijuana patients in Colorado. That includes about 175 from El Paso County, the most of any county in the state.
"We think there's at least 45,000 patients unrealized in the state," says Scott Carr, Colorado regional manager of The Hemp and Cannabis (THC) Foundation, based in Wheat Ridge. The THC Foundation works in four of the 11 states with medical marijuana laws, operating health clinics that consider patients for recommended medicinal use of marijuana. The group set up shop in Colorado in April 2006, and Carr says it eventually will offer mobile clinics, traveling by appointment to evaluate potential patients statewide.
"There are way too many doctors who should be [recommending marijuana] but don't," adds Melamede. "The doctors are not up to date with the science, and they're intimidated by the federal Nazis."
Matt Schnur, a medical marijuana user who serves as a reference for potential patients, says he knows only a small number of doctors who will recommend pot as treatment. They don't advertise it, he says, for fear of ostracism from the medical community.
Melamede estimates somewhere between five and 10 local physicians in Colorado Springs are willing to prescribe marijuana for medical problems.
"Most of the doctors don't even want to talk about it," Melamede says. "A lot of them simply aren't tuned into what's happening in modern science. ... They don't realize that marijuana can have a profound positive impact on many patients, even the difference between life and death."
Melamede feels it's unfortunate that Colorado physicians are so reluctant to admit their willingness to prescribe marijuana, "while in California, you'll actually see advertising for cannabis doctors."
Schnur, a graduate-level biologist who recently moved to Colorado Springs from Fort Collins, hopes to become a court expert for medical marijuana and wants to write the first board-certified, medical marijuana textbook. He relocated to the Springs specifically to research with Melamede and study at UCCS.
Schnur plans to finish his studies in cell and molecular biology and to use "recombinant DNA technology" in developing a process for mass production of cannabinoids, which he calls "my ultimate project."
Such a process, Schnur hopes, would generate bulk amounts of cannabinoids that manufacturers could add to such products as chewing gum, patches and even energy drinks.
"I can't get into the specific organism, but one problem we've had with patients is [that] six plants are not enough," Schnur says. "I'm working to develop a way people can provide themselves as much medicine as [they] need without growing a plant."
Aside from his research, Schnur has started a Front Range Americans for Safe Access chapter. He is offering free help to patients seeking advice in educating doctors on the issue, and he has also started an Internet forum ( http://medmarijuana.meetup.com/126/boards/ ) to answer any questions about medical marijuana.
"Copernicus, Galileo they were all mocked in their time," Schnur says of his crusade. "I've dedicated my life to medical marijuana, and I'll defend it to the death."
Fighting the system
Schnur's overly-ambitious-for-a-stoner passion partly stems from getting busted for pot himself.
In May 2005, a SWAT team descended upon Schnur's Fort Collins home, presumably after a handyman tipped off police that marijuana plants were growing underneath the floors of the house. He was arrested for cultivation and intent to distribute. His girlfriend and another roommate also were charged for drug possession and paraphernalia.
Schnur, 25, has suffered from diabetes since he was 4 years old, and he developed neuropathy a few years ago after moving from Illinois to attend Colorado State University. Neuropathy is a degenerative nerve condition that causes nausea, severe pain and, in Schnur's case, swelling in his right foot.
"I'd say a third of the meals I eat, I throw up, when I don't smoke," says Schnur. "I had smoked recreationally, but not regularly [before developing neuropathy], but once when my foot was swelling and I smoked, I noticed it helped."
Schnur had a doctor's recommendation for the medical use of pot at the time of the bust, but the physician was from Illinois. Colorado doesn't recognize notes from out-of-state doctors, leaving Schnur in the legal wrong.
Following a plea last April, Schnur opted for 40 days in Larimer County's "WorkEnder" weekend-service program instead of a 20-day jail sentence. But his doctors advised the court he wasn't able to participate because of his medical condition, which prevents him from being on his feet more than four hours.
The judge refused to change his ruling Schnur says the judge "didn't want me on home detention because he didn't want me smoking pot all day" so Schnur started the WorkEnder program toward the end of last summer.
While in the program, Schnur suffered a diabetic seizure. He also experienced foot swelling after one weekend. He says officials kicked him out of the program, but the judge refused to offer options other than finishing the WorkEnder stint or serving hard time.
Schnur showed up Dec. 4 for his 20-day jail sentence, spending his time in the suicide ward so nurses could administer his insulin. He was let out after 14 days, but still faces many hours of community service. He also must check in for regular tests to monitor his marijuana intake, though he's allowed to smoke for his conditions.
"It was so tragic, what happened to Matt up there in Fort Collins," Melamede says. "He really got screwed by the court system. He's a very conscientious guy and a great student."
The Compassion Club
James Masters doesn't know exactly what's wrong with his body. He might have porphyria an enzyme abnormality or an overstock supply of hepatitis antibodies, although he's never had the disease or a vaccination. What the Fort Collins native does know is that, "since the age of 23, I've been throwing up every day," he says.
He suffers from constant nausea, stomach cramps, muscle spasms and swelling. In the first year of his illness, James, now 29, fell into a coma. Later, incontinence kept him from holding jobs or attending college. Unable to provide for his young family, he suffered from depression. The doctors prescribed him a lineup of pharmaceutical narcotics, including diazepam, hydromorphone and antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs.
"For the first three or four years of my marriage, I had a living corpse on my floor," says Lisa. "They had him on 11 medications at one point."
Lisa, 31, has her own list of physical maladies. Three protruding discs in her neck, two of which are possibly herniated. Joint swelling and muscle spasms. Carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. Bursitis in both ankles.
Marijuana, the Masterses say, provides relief from their sicknesses. It numbs muscle and nerve pain, and nausea.
"Symptomatically, I noticed I had less episodes when I was smoking," says James, "but, at that point [in 2001], I had kids and I couldn't afford marijuana."
James remembers when the state passed a medical marijuana law in 2000, but he says it meant "absolutely nothing" at the time because there was so little information about the program. When he asked his family physician to refer him, the doctor refused to help and even failed to tell James about the state health department Web site for potential patients.
Amendment 20 allows doctor-recommended patients with debilitating diseases to smoke pot and hold up to two ounces, or six plants (with three or fewer being mature, flowering plants), of marijuana. Under the constitutional amendment, medical marijuana users are supposed to register with the state.
But in a January 2006 Gunnison County court case decided in favor of medical marijuana user Ryan Margenau, a jury held that, according to Amendment 20, a patient doesn't have to be registered but does require a recommendation from a Colorado physician.
"Patients don't have to go through every single step to be legal. They can just have a doctor's recommendation, and it's worth noting that the doctor's recommendation can be oral or written," says Brian Vicente, one of two attorneys representing the Masterses and executive director of Sensible Colorado, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of medical marijuana users and supports pot decriminalization.
The staff of Colorado's Medical Marijuana Registry approves applications but does not issue licenses or permits. The registry won't connect potential patients with doctors who will recommend pot for treatment. Nor does the state share information on how to acquire or grow weed, or recognize patients who have been approved for medical marijuana use in other states.
Through another friend, the Masterses met Thomas and Larisa Lawrence, a Denver couple, in 2003. Thomas Lawrence is a registered medical marijuana user, and he and his wife had begun serving as caregivers, maintaining a garden of high-quality pot for other patients. They shared information about doctors who would consider recommending people for treatment.
The Lawrences created the Colorado Compassion Club in 2004 to run a marijuana dispensary for patients, who donated money for pot, seeds or clippings.
In the summer of 2004, the Masterses first received doctors' recommendations, and they began coordinating with the Lawrences to help distribute pot to patients in northern Colorado. Lisa cooks and bakes with ganja, providing meals for patients with throat illnesses or those who have never smoked.
Last May, James began organizing weekly gatherings to spread the word about how to enroll for medical marijuana privileges, ultimately opening the Larimer County chapter of the Compassion Club.
"I started holding meetings," says James, "and what I heard over and over again from people with cancer, HIV, full-blown AIDS, was, "Where do I get medicine?'"
Last summer, the Masterses started their own garden for Compassion Club patients. Their first homegrown crop consisted of the 12 mature plants that Larimer's drug task force confiscated in the August bust.
Growing by the rules
Lt. Craig Dodd of the Larimer County Drug Task Force says his unit has handled eight to 10 cases in the past two years in which it was called into a home due to suspicion of drug possession, only to find a registered medical marijuana user.
"We don't know until we actually do a search warrant if someone has a valid certificate," says Dodd. "But they have to be within the confines of the law."
The Masterses weren't, according to the police, district attorney's office and a county judge who refused to throw out the charges. While not facing any child abuse or neglect charges, they are up against allegations that they had too many plants, and weren't registered as caregivers for other patients.
The first allegation hinges on whether clones, rootless starts from other plants, should be considered separate plants.
"What we explain [to patients]," says state registry administrator Debra Tuenge, "is if it's green, law enforcement is probably going to count it as a plant."
Meanwhile, James Masters maintains that without counting the clones, he and his wife had enough budding plants for four patients, based on the restrictions of Amendment 20.
James adds that they were acting as caregivers to 30 people. In their defense, the Masterses plan to call patients to the stand during their trial to vouch that they were receiving medicine from the couple.
Patients are supposed to name their caregivers on their state registration. But the Masterses weren't registered as caregivers for 30 people; the state wouldn't have allowed that.
A registry policy not stipulated by Amendment 20 is to limit caregivers to only five patients, says Tuenge. She declines to say why.
If patients or caregivers are charged with exceeding the limits for the amount of pot allowable under the law, Tuenge says, they can explain why in court and avoid prosecution.
"We definitely encounter cases where people have more than the number of plants that are allowed," adds Dodd. "That's not a rarity at all." And if they're growing 30 plants, instead of the legal limit of six, "that's a pretty good indicator that it's not just for personal use" for medical patients.
Only two registered patients have been convicted on illegal drug charges, implying most people grow and smoke within conditions of the law.
"I don't feel anyone is abusing the registry, or the limits either," says Tuenge.
Still, to the Masterses and their lawyers, Amendment 20's technicalities and loopholes have blocked regional dispensaries, such as the Colorado Compassion Club's branches, from getting medicine to patients in need.
"The law does not mention a five-person cap [for caregivers]," says Vicente. "It's another example of the government arbitrarily making a decision about medical marijuana that is negatively affecting patients."
Vicente finds optimism and maybe a precedent in the Margenau decision at Gunnison. Just as that case proved a patient doesn't have to register to avoid prosecution, he hopes the Masterses' case will establish that a caregiver shouldn't have to officially document each patient.
"It could be an impact case," says Vicente. "It could set a precedent to allow safe access to medical marijuana."
Specific details, including caregiver-patient ratios, definitions of plants, limits of plants per patient, eligible medical conditions and the right to compensation, might all be addressed during the Masterses' trial.
"At the end of the day, sick people should not be prosecuted for providing care for other sick people," Vicente says, "and caregivers should be allowed to be compensated for providing medical marijuana. What other medicine is given away free?"
"Yeah, I want to be compensated for the work, but I don't want to get rich," adds James Masters. "I don't have stars in my eyes."
"A noble path'
Ordeals such as those experienced by Matt Schnur and the Masterses indicate that the law enforcement and criminal justice systems are not yet ready to assimilate or accept a medical use for cannabis.
Marijuana advocacy groups try to couch the discussion in terms of compassion. But in many cases, police, prosecutors and judges still treat medical marijuana patients like potheads and drug dealers. Whatever the outcome of the Masterses' trial, society appears to be sliding toward compassion.
In the November 2006 election, Colorado voters defeated (59 to 41 percent) a proposal to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the state. That kind of defeat is considered a spanking in electoral terms, but supporters say the numbers are encouraging: Four out of 10 voters didn't see pot as a harmful or dangerous drug.
"There are definitely some drawbacks of marijuana," says James Masters. "I do have some memory problems." But he says those are minor compared to the blackouts he suffered from the slew of narcotics and other pharmaceuticals he once took.
Today, marijuana is the only medicine James regularly uses, and he credits it for allowing him to go back to college and have a relationship with his wife and kids.
If the THC Foundation did enroll 45,000 medical marijuana patients in Colorado, one in every 100 citizens would be able to smoke pot legally if there's enough pot for them to smoke.
"There are so many other families that could go through this if somebody doesn't step up, if somebody doesn't carry through," James Masters says of the sickness and inability of patients to get medical marijuana.
"With every fiber of my being, I believe it's a noble path."
Joshua Zaffos, news editor for the Rocky Mountain Chronicle in Fort Collins, has written stories previously for the Independent.