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MEDICINE : Arrest Sounds an Alarm for Medicinal Marijuana Clubs : Seattle area co-op is put out of business of helping AIDS and cancer patients. Similar groups had been gaining in popularity across U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The deep green marijuana leaves lovingly nurtured to bloom in the dank back room of her trailer in the woods were, Joanna McKee says, a lifeline for dozens of grievously ill patients soothed out of their pain by the plants’ hypnotic smoke.

For the cancer chemotherapy and AIDS patients who came to depend on the drug’s ability to quell their nausea and kick-start their appetite, McKee’s marijuana co-op provided low-cost supplies and--for those able to tend their own secret gardens--ready-made pots complete with irrigation tubing, fertilizer and drainage reservoirs. Her clients, she said, often gained a new foothold watching their tiny cannabis plant bloom into health.

“You’re growing your own medicine. Do you understand how powerful that is? I can save my life with what I’m doing right here!” said McKee, 52, who has depended for years on puffs from a home-grown joint to ease her crippling back spasms.

McKee’s Green Cross Patient Co-op was one of more than three dozen medicinal marijuana cooperatives gaining widening appeal around the United States in the face of a federal ban on nearly all medicinal use of marijuana in its herbal form. Late last month, it became the first in the nation to be targeted by a law-enforcement community that is largely unwilling to prosecute dying AIDS and cancer patients and perplexed about how to respond to the growing popularity of these cannabis clubs.

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McKee and her partner, Ronald L. (Stich) Miller, 49, were arrested by a regional drug task force, and some 130 marijuana plants were confiscated from their back-room growing chamber in a raid that surprised even the police department, which for more than a year had turned a blind eye to the co-op’s operations on this rural island off the coast of Seattle.

The case has sounded an alarm among advocates for legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes--a medical issue nearly as contentious as abortion and physician-assisted suicide and one on which the Clinton Administration has declined to decisively weigh in.

“As far as we know, it is the first concerted action against a cannabis buyers club,” said Allen St. Pierre, deputy national director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “If anything, it has informed the medical cannabis community that they are subject to arrest. At this point, some of them have become sort of flip about this sort of thing, and unfortunately now I will have the ability to cite a precedent that this is not a carefree endeavor.”

Since the George Bush Administration first began phasing out the federal program under which qualified patients were given marijuana cigarettes on a limited basis, cannabis buyers clubs have sprung up in urban centers across the country--particularly in San Francisco, New York and Miami, where gay activist organizations have promoted marijuana’s usefulness for AIDS patients.

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Marijuana’s appetite-stimulant properties--regular users call it “the munchies"--have been lifesaving for many AIDS patients wasting away with an inability to eat. Cancer chemotherapy patients have found it an effective antidote to their gut-wrenching nausea and medical benefits have also been documented for sufferers of glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and many other medical conditions.

“To a person with chemotherapy-induced nausea, marijuana is a miracle medicine,” said Tacoma attorney Ralph Seeley, who has used the drug to combat the effects of treatment for an unusual form of bone and lung cancer and who has sued the state of Washington to have the drug legalized for medicinal use.

“Chemotherapy-induced nausea is not an upset tummy. It is a violent attack on your system,” Seeley said, asserting that marijuana has provided the only relief he has ever found. “The big question is, in the face of overwhelming evidence that there are many suffering people for whom this is the answer, how can this prohibition be maintained?”

Like many patients, Seeley contends that the oral tablet form of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, that is legally available by prescription is both too expensive and ineffective for nauseous patients who throw up the pill as soon as they take it. Patients also say that oral THC gives a high that lasts up to 12 hours, far stronger and more debilitating than a few puffs from a cigarette.

Clayton Wilbanks, a patient with AIDS and hepatitis who depended on supplies from the Green Cross Patient Co-op, said marijuana helped treat his depression and appetite. “I’ve had problems with nausea and vomiting and diarrhea, and the drugs they give you to help cope with these things are so toxic they make me sicker,” said Wilbanks, who now fears arrest after the seizure of Green Cross’ client records.

“I don’t answer the door. I’m afraid to. This could kill me,” he said. “But do I let Stich and Joanna hold out on their own? Hell, no. I was not raised to sit on the back of the bus. I may lose my house, I may lose my freedom, but I’m going to go on the witness stand and testify about the medical benefits of marijuana.”

The door to the Green Cross Co-op lies at the end of a long gravel road winding through high trees. An American Revolution flag of a coiled snake and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” hangs over the front door. Visitors are greeted by an enormous dog, a wolf-mix from Alaska who hauls McKee on her wheelchair around the streets of Bainbridge Island.

Miller instructs wary visitors to glare back at the dog, and once the stare-down is over, the canine sits companionably on the visitor’s foot. Miller sprawls on the floor next to him, and speaks wistfully of the buds that got away when the state task force officers loaded up the co-op’s stock.

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“They handcuffed me. They stuffed pillows behind her back and let her moan,” he said of the arrests.

Miller and McKee said they were serving more than 70 patients between Oregon and the Canadian border, requiring letters from doctors--verified by telephone--and providing marijuana at near-cost and often free. Information about the co-op was distributed through area AIDS organizations, and McKee approached the Bainbridge City Council last year about a resolution urging legalization of medical marijuana use.

“Marijuana’s against the law, and that’s been our policy,” said Bainbridge Island Police Chief John Sutton, who was informed of the action against Green Cross only an hour before the search warrant was served. “But I made the decision . . . over a year ago that we were not going to actively pursue these people. I don’t want to say we turned the other cheek. I will say we simply didn’t pursue the matter.”

Bruce Stubbs, Seattle spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which handed over the original tip about Green Cross to the local task force, said federal policy remains that the use of marijuana, even for medical purposes, is illegal.

“I’m not aware of any change in our policy. We certainly haven’t targeted these kinds of people,” he said. “But we seriously question whether these ‘clubs’ are clubs. They mostly look like dope traffickers to us. They grow and import illicit drugs, and as a public service, they claim to sell it to those who need it, and they make a good profit doing it. They don’t give it away, by any stretch.”


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