Crackdown on the Valley isle

The pain in his skull is excruciating. If his pitch-black bedroom and silence don’t work to ease the agony, it’ll be another familiar trip to the ER for morphine or Demerol.

Sufferng three or four acute migraine episodes per week, RC Anderson wasn’t too thrilled about his predicament: 14 years trying different meds with “very little positive results.” His wedding photography business was impossible to keep afloat amidst the heavy narcotic knock out and accompanying vomiting.

Marijuana was an easy choice after participating in a University of California study on the effects of cannabis on migraines, he says. His migraines are now down to one-per-week, they’re controllable, he’s started another business, and he’s an archbishop in his church.

Anderson says things on O’ahu aren’t exactly set up for the medical-marijuana patient. He first looked for some organization to educate him about how to obtain marijuana. Besides Patients Without Time (PWT), a medical-marijuana cooperative and advocacy group in Maui, there wasn’t anything. He looked to buy the strain he says he needed on the black market, but couldn’t find it in Honolulu County. Finally, he decided to grow his own, but he’s running up against the rules of the ‘Aiea Newtown Estates Community Association. Anderson says they’ve told him “no can do” on his greenhouse.

A 2000 law allows patients who would benefit from it to cultivate their own marijuana. This includes those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy and a host of other ailments. According to the federal government though, marijuana is classified as a drug with no medical applications, so state lawmakers laid out strict conditions for patient use, while still worrying about abuse. The law stipulates that patients who need marijuana for medical reasons must cultivate it themselves or have a caregiver grow it. Any third party interaction or money changing hands is against the law. Patients are allowed a total of seven plants at a time.

Though the law may say grow your own, Anderson says, in reality most don’t or can’t. He says he smokes about a joint worth a week of a strain called sativa. He says an ounce costs him $550 and lasts “four or five months.” Sativa doesn’t knock him out, and he can remain productive, continue working, and continue thinking straight. The strain available on the black market in O’ahu, is called “indica,” he says. This is the one that causes a stony feeling and “makes you want to sit on the couch, watch TV and eat Doritos.”

Cannabis seedlings, or clones, of the sativa variety come from the Big Island or Maui and that presents other problems, according to Anderson. Since the waterways and airspace between islands is federally controlled, transport from one island to the next is illegal. Regardless, he says, plants are flown in from the Big Island and Maui and processed pakalolo goes over the Superferry all the time.

Anderson is hesitant about stepping out of the black market and into compliance. He says growing pot in his yard in ‘Aiea is “an open invitation to get robbed,” and he worries about the safety of his wife and children. Yet a secure greenhouse violates his neighborhood homeowners’ association’s rules. Anderson says he’s tried to get an exception from the association but with no luck. And so, feeling he has no choice, construction of the home greenhouse starts soon. The president of his neighborhood’s community association, Donald Devaney, refused comment.

PWT has been trying to smooth these wrinkles for Hawai’i residents. “The current law’s kapakahi (or one-sided),” says Brian Murphy, founder of PWT and head of Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action. His organization began in 2002 and before that, Murphy lobbied for drug law reform in Virginia and California. He’s been largely responsible for many of the bills debated by the Hawai’i Legislature in past years.

“I could be a millionaire right now and no one would know who I was if I just wanted to deal pot,” he says. He goes on to say he’s not in it for money. Proof of this, he claims, is in the fact that he wouldn’t be testifying to change laws in Honolulu, organizing petition drives and openly operating if he were. Murphy says he’s been with too many suffering people, literally at their last dying breaths, not to do something. “I couldn’t face myself in the morning if I didn’t help people on a personal level.”

Besides disseminating information, PWT received marijuana from caregivers and gave it to patients. Both were members of the cooperative, and patients paid a “storage fee” which was waived if a patient couldn’t pay, according to Murphy.

But on Nov. 11 Maui Police completed a two-year investigation dubbed “Operation Weedkiller,” which culminated in the arrests of Murphy and six others. Charges range from criminal conspiracy to commercial promotion of marijuana. Their trial is scheduled for February 2009.

Hawai’i lawmakers have indicated a strong interest in looking at the need for programs like Murphy’s PWT. As recently as last legislative session, they passed a bill creating a task force to study the efficacy of the medical-marijuana program in its current form. But, Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed it, saying a task force would just be looking to “circumvent federal law.”

Maj. Frank Fujii, spokesman for the Narcotics and Vice squad at the Honolulu Police Department agrees with Lingle’s sentiment, saying, “The HPD will continue to take a strong stance against the medicinal use of marijuana because it is still a violation of federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that smoked marijuana is not ‘medicine.’ Further, the Food and Drug Administration has never approved smoked marijuana as a medicine.”

But Rep. Joe Bertram III (D-South Maui) says that’s just a smoke screen. He says there are plenty of state laws in opposition to federal laws and that the police and the governor work for the state, not the federal government. “They’re actually abrogating their responsibility as employees of the state. The attorney general said this himself,” Bertram said. He plans to reintroduce the bill in the upcoming 2009 legislative session as well as a bill to create centralized, secure-growing facilities for medical-marijuana patients.

And to try and eliminate the stigma he sees against cannabis, he says he’ll be growing ganja in his Honolulu legislative office this year. “That way people will be able to see it’s just a plant. It grows. You can touch it.” Bertram is currently a registered medical-marijuana caregiver with the state Narcotics Enforcement Division.

Still, if past performance is an indicator of future action, most of Hawai’i law enforcement’s top brass will come out against any changes to the status quo. Keith Kamita, administrator of the Narcotics Enforcement Division calls marijuana and alcohol “gateway drugs.” Thomas Phillips, Maui Chief of Police Chief, testified in January 2008 against the proposed task force saying, “It is no wonder that we consistently rank in the top seven states in the nation in regards to marijuana plants eradicated, and consequently have one of the worst crystal methamphetamine problems in the nation.” Many police officers cite cases where licensed caregivers have sold weed to unlicensed users and dealers.

United against cannabis, Kamita and Fujii also agree that though the current law requires it, it can be dangerous for patients to grow their own. “Anytime you grow marijuana there is a strong probability that other people will learn of the activity. This increases your risk to fall victim to robbery, burglary, and/or theft,” Fujii said.

Sen. Will Espero (D–‘Ewa Beach to Lower Waipahu) is the chair of the Public Safety Committee overseeing Hawai’i’s medical-marijuana program. He said the debate raises a number of concerns: “Can patients reasonably grow it themselves? What if we were asked to grow all our own vegetables to sustain ourselves? Could we?” He says he doesn’t know of any recent studies looking at the program and perhaps with the change of administration, now would be good timing.

It seems he’s not alone. Last February, the American College of Physicians, the second-largest doctors’ professional organization in the U.S., publicly opposed laws outlawing medical-marijuana, calling for an end to the federal ban on medical use and for more funding for research.

Meantime, back in ‘Aiea, Anderson struggles to control his migraines and keep working. In October, he agreed to launch a Honolulu chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical-marijuana advocacy group. “I was looking to become a member,” he recalls. “Instead of sitting back and waiting for laws to get changed, If nobody else is gonna do it, I might as well.”