3,000 registered marijuana patients seek out sources
By Anne Stanton 7/27/09
Now that people have had a couple of months to register as patients under
the new medical marijuana law, it makes you wonder: How does the whole
thing work? Do you just call up a pot grower and put in an order?
To find out, I called up a friend of mine, Bob Heflin, who had come out
in a recent newspaper letter supporting legalized medical marijuana. The
weird thing is I had known Bob for years and had no idea he smoked pot. I
had much to learn.
He called me back with some statistics. There are close to 3,000 patients
now registered with the state. They can either grow pot themselves or get
their supply from a caregiver, who they can specify, and who must also
be approved. So far 1,120 caregivers have received the states stamp of
Heflin runs compassion meetings in Traverse City, where hes seen a lot
of interest in becoming a caregiver. Yet its still against the law to
sell marijuana to patients. Obviously, any supplier is still in jeopardy.
What would you think about meeting a couple of growers? he asked.
And so began my journey into a parallel universe that I usually read about
in police reports, but have never seen firsthand.
I drove to Heflins house to get some background information on the law.
He met me wearing a nice suit, not wanting to look like a slacker, which
hes not. In fact, he lives in a bi-level home in a perfectly normal
subdivision on the east side of Traverse City. His 16-year-old son was
outside mowing the lawn. Heflin has worked in the fields of criminal
justice, social work, and, ironically, substance abuse treatment. Now hes
devoted to marijuana reform and sits on the board of directors for the
Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (and, yes, they do light up at the
end of their meetings).
As it turns out, Heflin, 61, played rugby until the age of 37, beating up
his body pretty badly. Hes a big guy -- the word bear comes to mind --
and he walks with a limp.
Heflin told me that the pain became intense 11 years ago, and is still
very severe when he gets up in the morning. Think Nick Nolte in North
Dallas 40. His answer: marijuana.
Heflin -- along with others with a passion for this sacred, medicinal
plant -- have done a great deal of research on the medical uses of
marijuana, which date back to the Chinese 2,737 years before the age of
Christ. Its therapeutic value for nausea, pain, glaucoma, and loss of
appetite are well known. Now a recent clinical study in Spain shows it can
help shrink brain tumors, while animal studies indicate promise in the
treatment of Alzheimers.
I myself have mixed feelings about marijuana. My dad was an undercover
narcotics officer followed by a 20-year stint as a substance abuse
counselor. When he was a state trooper, he surmised that forcing alcohol
underground in the 1920s was the impetus for organized crime. And as a
substance abuse counselor, he believed marijuana was less injurious to
society and a persons body than alcohol. Of course, hed prefer people
not to indulge in either one.
I had friends who had fun and even meaningful times getting high, but most
stopped in the late 1980s when the pot became too potent. Theyd suffer an
intense paranoia attack and swear off the stuff.
I told Heflin of one old friend in California who operated his A-1
Appliance Repair out of an old orange van, fixing washing machines and
dishwashers. Hed tell me he thought he could do better, yet every night,
hed get high and his ambitions floated away with the smoke. My theory was
that if he stopped smoking and allowed himself to feel intensely
frustrated and angry, hed get off his duff and get a college degree.
Emotions, especially the intensely negative ones, can be very motivating.
True enough, Heflin said. But theres nothing noble about severe and
I believe if someone is over the age of 21, they should be able to make
the decision of what they want to put in their body. But anyone who is
seriously ill should be looked at in a different category of need, Heflin
Heflin said the interesting thing about marijuana is that no one has ever
died of an overdose, unlike Tylenol or the myriad of opiates given for
Not to say you cant have a bad experience of paranoia or couch lock,
which is self-explanatory, Heflin said.
Heflin showed me his patient application to the state that required a $100
check and a letter from his doctor that he suffered from chronic pain from
arthritis. The doctor does not write a prescription, but signs a
recommendation that says a patient may receive therapeutic or palliative
relief for a qualifying illness, such as Multiple Sclerosis, AIDS, or
Heflin prefers to use a vaporizer that he special-ordered at Blue in the
Face in downtown Traverse City. It looks very high tech, but think of it
as an extravagant bong that roasts or heats the marijuana and spares the
lungs from smoke. Another alternative is to eat the marijuana in the form
of brownies or cookies. Because it takes more marijuana to get the same
effect, its more expensive than smoking. Yet its far healthier, Heflin
Heflin runs Compassion Club meetings, usually at the Traverse Area
District Library. He said its a good place for patients to find out more
about the medical marijuana law. Marijuana growers who want to become
caregivers are showing up and informally connecting with patients.
Heflin said he usually shouts out a welcome to any undercover police
officers who might also be attending.
Prices are discussed at the meeting--expect sticker shock if its been
awhile. You may or may not remember that pot in the 1970s cost about $15
an ounce; its now running $300 to $400 an ounce. Thats because its far
more potent with up to 20 percent of THC (the active ingredient of
marijuana) as compared to three percent 30 years ago. Yet the higher level
of THC is considered more effective medicine than the weaker (and cheaper)
product thats coming up from Texas, Heflin said.
Heflin explained that although marijuana is far stronger, its also
self-titrating. In other words, you smoke as much as you need--and for
many people, it might be one hit of a joint or one bite of a brownie. Be
careful of the edibles--its the easiest way to take in too much.
On day one of my investigation, I visit a pot grower, who I will call Dan.
He is -- for purposes of anonymity -- in the middle of nowhere. Beyond the
front entrance, is a small grow-room with lights. A number of plants are
divided into stages of growth -- from cuttings to mature plants. Dan
delves into a technical conversation about lights, saturation, and plant
food, losing me in about two minutes.
Dans specialty is rooting clones, which he would like to give to medical
marijuana patients, although he doesnt yet have a caregiver
designation. After the tour of the grow room, we go upstairs and gaze out
onto a field. No, I am not high.
Dan said he works in construction and remodeling jobs, but things turned
south eight years ago when his wife contracted a serious illness. She
needed a year of chemotherapy, but they lacked health insurance and their
income was too high to qualify for Medicaid. They decided to purposely
let their incomes fall. Dan said the problem was if they made one dollar
higher than the cap, then their entire health insurance would get cut off.
There was no way to step up without falling off a cliff, he said.
So he began to sell marijuana. I got into this because I had shit in
front of me. I had no other way to deal with it. My only alternative was
bankruptcy or not being able to climb the cliff.
Besides that, Dan comes from a family of pot smokers going back two
generations. They dont drink at family reunions; they smoke.
Im not a bad person. Ive been married to the same woman for 20 years; I
raised two kids -- the oldest was an honor roll student, and neither one
of them are troublemakers. In my judgment, there have been laws that were
on the books for years that are just plain wrong. Interracial marriage.
Prohibition against alcohol. Laws that prevent gay people from getting
married. If you dont work to change them, theyll stay the same, he
Dan said he had just gotten ahead of his bills two years ago, when police
arrested him for possession of two joints -- his first arrest.
I had to go to Narcotics Anonymous! I dont do drugs. What was really the
bite was I had to go to a drug awareness program at Catholic Human
Services. Im not a Catholic. Hell, Im not even a Christian. They use
this as a psychological weapon.
Dan sold his equipment after the arrest, but now wonders now if he should
have gone that far. Hes tight on money, but has a vision of becoming a
consultant for marijuana patients and selling them his high quality
In California, they have collectives -- a group of suppliers of different
strains. There are 15 to 30 different kinds of marijuana that work for
different symptomsanxiety, insomnia, back pain, anti-nausea. Theres a
need to provide cuttings. Im that person.
He pointed out that his idea is ahead of the law, which doesnt allow for
the distribution of pot -- even if no money ever changes hands. Last
year, he said, there were 800,000 arrests of people who possessed
marijuana in this country.
What I dont understand is why they think its better to spend money to
put me in jail instead of letting me grow it and taxing me?
The next day, I visit Archie. Hes larger than life and the center of an
Antrim County community, or at least a good part of it. As you walk in the
door, youre welcomed by yellow smiley faces on the wall, the smell of
baked cookies, and Archie himself, who grins with perfectly white teeth.
Like Dan, this man lives very close to the poverty line. Unlike Dan, he
does not live a stealth life and is hell-bent on being happy. In fact, he
has literally dozens of people flowing in and out of his house, and they
abide by the posted rules. No whining, no fighting, no complaining. They
smile a lot. We call it sanctuary here. No attitudes allowed, Archie
They help each other fix a car or a lawn mower, getting parts from the
mechanical graveyard. Archie doles out advice on how to grow marijuana
and refers people to his favorite book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
Archie is now legal, as much as the law allows. He is a medical
marijuana patient, and in the process of becoming a caregiver for several
others. Under the law, he is able to grow 12 plants a year for himself as
a patient, and 12 plants each for five other patients -- a total of 72.
One of his patients is John Chisholm Jr., 41, who is in a wheelchair. A
car accident did him in. I went around a corner and there was a pick-up
truck in the middle. I had to swerve around to miss him, and I went into
a tree. It was a 42 mph impact. I was in a Mustang with a fiberglass
front-end, and it pushed the engine into the drivers compartment
My ankle busted clean off and my foot was lying against the shin, wrapped
around the gas pedal. The skin wasnt ripped, but the bone snapped and now
the bone in my ankle is dead. Both my femurs were busted. Im constantly
grinding the bones.
The pain is constant, but less awful with marijuana.
Archie himself looks fit, but near his elbow theres a hellacious scar
from an accident 15 years ago, when he slipped on ice and crashed his arm
through the plate glass. Doctors successfully reattached the arm during
an eight-hour operation; his heart stopped twice during the ordeal.
Without health insurance and unable to work, he lost four of his five
properties. Dark days followed. Unable to afford electricity, he put
together a bank of batteries and recharged them each night with his car.
He was married at the time with four kids. Each night, when theyd get
home from school, theyd take turns riding an exercise bike in order to
recharge the batteries.
Archie tried prescription painkillers, but they didnt touch the pain. He
also didnt like the side effects of nausea and bleeding out both ends.
He also suffered from muscle spasms and mini strokes. He told the doctor
straight up that marijuana would cure his problems, and he quit the
painkillers. Archie was no stranger to pot. Hed used it for back pain
since after he fell into a gym wall while running track at Traverse City
Central High School in 1975.
Archies a proud student of growing marijuana, having once grown plants
near a beaver dam. Fish emulsion is one of the best fertilizers on the
planet, he enthused. He now grows some of his plants hydroponically in
this white pipe contraption that he manufactured from a childs safety
gate. The set-up includes a water pump, a thermostat, and automatic lights
from the Grow Store. His plants mature to bud-hood in 75 days, far short
of the normal 90 days it normally takes. He is working on a patent.
I get a pound off my outside plants because I give them love and what
they need. They grow six-feet high.
But he isnt in it for the money.
I am from a small community thats poor and everybody helps everybody
out. Everything here is donated. This is as close to a collective as we
could make it. Everybody has a little bit of what theyre good at, and
when you put it all together, its awesome energy.
He is concerned that several people havent been able to get their
physician to recommend medicinal marijuana. He himself was turned down by
his own doctor at Kalkaska Family Practice, so he went to a different
doctor within the practice. He believes the practice is now flat-out
refusing to issue any recommendations
Kalkaska Family Practice had 50 people who called in a day to get
authorization, just a bunch of high-ons trying to get it, and that hurts
the patient factor, he said.
One doctor told a patient that Munson Medical Center wasnt allowing its
affiliated physicians to sign a recommendation. But Munson has taken no
position on the issue, said Barb Gordon-Kessel, a Munson spokesperson.
Its completely between the physician and patient, she said.
As for Archie, hes now helping people find more accommodating doctors.
Its all good, he said, using his favorite line.
To find out about a Compassion Club meeting in your area, go to the
Michigan Medical Marijauana Association website. Next week: Law
enforcement weighs in.