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Medical marijuana: who it helps, how to get it and where it stands today

I understand why people smoke weed. It's relaxing, and the world seems like a more manageable place, full of stellar epiphanies to be had (and subsequently forgotten). But I never fully appreciated marijuana's medicinal value until I spoke with Kirstin Elgin, a 24-year-old with spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine), lumbar scoliosis, five herniated discs and arthritis in her spine.

"It's changed my life," Elgin says of medical marijuana. "The thing that has really helped my pain the most is being able to have control over what I'm smoking."

Elgin, a Colorado Springs resident now going to school in Louisville, applied for and received her medical marijuana card a year ago, after consulting with the physician who's treated her for chronic and almost incapacitating back pain for six years. He agreed medical marijuana would benefit Elgin, especially as an alternative to her opiate medication.

"To be able to smoke pot or eat pot and then go for a swim ... it's so much more doable," she says.

To be eligible for a license, patients must be diagnosed with a debilitating condition such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, or another condition that would be alleviated by the use of medical marijuana. Those include severe nausea or severe pain (nerve pain, in Elgin's case), seizures, muscle spasms and more.

The three-page application requires proof of Colorado residency, notarization, a $90 fee and a doctor's certification. Once a doctor has signed the referral, patients can take their paperwork into a dispensary and get medication immediately (or start growing their own), without having to wait for their card, according to a provision in the state constitution.

A year ago, it took around 45 days for the state's Medical Marijuana Registry to process an application. Now, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the turnaround time is six months.

The number of applications increased from about 270 a day in August 2009 to 1,000 per day in February 2010, the department reports. Adding to the backlog: Only three full-time and 10 temporary workers process applications. Those numbers will go up to 13 and 20, respectively, in July.

Ronald Hyman, state registrar and director at the Office of Vital Statistics and Medical Marijuana Registry, credits two events for the explosive application growth. First was the Obama administration announcement in March 2009 that it would not raid dispensaries operating legally under state laws; the second was the Colorado State Board of Health decision in July 2009 that the state would not limit the number of patients to whom a caregiver could provide services.

"That's when we started seeing dispensaries pop up all over the place," Hyman says.

Current estimates put the number of dispensaries in the Springs between 90 and 110.

Existing state regulations are vague, and two bills to tighten them were being discussed in the Legislature at press time. The controversial House Bill 1284 tackles government and business issues — perhaps most notably, as of the time of this writing, it would give cities and counties the right to ban dispensaries altogether.

But Senate Bill 109 addresses doctor-patient relationships. Currently, patients must receive a referral from a Colorado licensed medical doctor "in good standing." Hyman's office uses the state Department of Regulatory Agencies database to look up the physicians, some of whose licenses are restricted for various reasons.

"The issue we face is, which of those restrictions raises to the level of 'not in good standing'?" Hyman says. "And what [the Senate] bill does is clarify this language."

SB109 redefines the relationship between the physician and the patient, requiring a full assessment of the patient's medical history, a physical exam and follow-up care, among other things. Another provision would prohibit physicians from receiving compensation from, or being affiliated with, a dispensary, which could limit a patient's options of doctors.

Tanya Garduno, director of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council, says she prefers to direct patients to pain management clinics that aren't affiliated with any dispensary.

"[Clinic] doctors are established doctors in Colorado Springs that don't have sanctions against them, there's nothing in question for them," she says.

The Medical Cannabis Council is designed to become a chamber of commerce of sorts for the medical marijuana industry, says Garduno. It's already worked with city governments to educate officials about the industry so they're better equipped to legislate when issues arise. And while some regulation will likely be a good thing, Garduno says, "We're wanting to stay very patient-focused and very medically focused."

Kirstin Elgin agrees that some guidelines are necessary, in order to curb abuse and help those who need pot as medicine.

"I'd love to see it legalized," she says, "but until then I'm happy with them at least acknowledging that it's definitely a great thing for those who benefit from it medicinally."



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