Is Marijuana Medicine?

It’s 3am and Terry Murphy can’t sleep. Her muscles spasm, her joints hurt and she has a pounding migraine. This was her life every few hours, from age 33 until three and a half years ago. She’s now 54. 

In a neat and clean home in Kihei, Terry lives with her 84-year-old widowed mother and a cat. She suffers from hereditary hemochromatosis, which happens to be the most common genetic disorder among Caucasians. Basically, her body absorbs too much iron; if not diagnosed in time, it’s fatal. Symptoms include severe arthritis and organ damage. One of the ways it’s treated is by bleeding a person on a regular basis so iron levels are reduced.   

Before arriving in Maui, her method to reduce pain and get some sleep was humongous amounts of codeine, as much as 250 pills a month. That lasted for decades, and sleep lasted about 3-4 hours at a time. The side effects weren’t good. Once on Maui, a doctor recommended she visit Patients Without Time (PWT), a medical marijuana cooperative in Paia.

Her mother said, “No way. You won’t do that in my house.” But they both went to Paia where they were counseled and given a small amount of cannabis-infused chocolate pudding. Terry tried it—and it worked, for the whole night, with no ill side effects. That was three years ago. “I get the same strain [of cannabis] they give to the MS [multiple sclerosis] people,” says Terry. After a while, she switched to using cannabis-infused butter so she could cook her own food and save some money. No insurance covers medical marijuana. So she pays $100 for 24 day’s worth, much less than the $250 a month for codeine, and with results that have changed her and her mother’s life. 

“It’s been remarkable. Really night and day,” says Terry’s mom. She says she taught her daughter and (healthy) son to stay away from drugs and the people who did them. And they did. Growing up, Terry never smoked pot and she still isn’t interested. She says the butter has a minimal amount of THC, which is what causes the typical recreational high from marijuana buds. Mother and daughter both see this as a completely different thing, though they don’t tell neighbors or many family members for fear they might not understand. “As far as I understand it, no one has ever overdosed or died from marijuana,” says Terry’s mom. “Hemlock isn’t illegal, and that will kill you.” 

But on November 11, Patients Without Time ceased operations. Terry says she now has no way to get her medicine, and she’s scared. Already her past symptoms are coming back. She’s worried she’ll be forced to return to the Mayo Clinic, where she spent time when she took a turn for the worse in the past. A slight woman, Terry says she’s “too afraid” to buy marijuana on the black market. She doesn’t know how to grow it, and beyond that it’s illegal to buy plants to start. “I know parents worry about kids getting a hold of marijuana plants. That’s one of the reasons it’s not practical for us to grow it in our garden here [in a Kihei neighborhood],” she says, explaining she doesn’t want to be responsible for creating a tempting, easy way for neighborhood kids to pluck plants from her yard. “PWT was providing that service,” her mom adds. 

“So what can you do?” Terry asks while rubbing painful joints in her hands. 

Brian Murphy (no relation to Terry), founder of Patients Without Time and Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action, was the alleged kingpin of a November 11  Maui drug bust. The culmination of “Operation Weedkiller,” the bust netted seven men, arrested after two years of police investigation. Charges range from criminal conspiracy to commercial promotion of marijuana. Murphy’s trial is scheduled for February. 

A disabled veteran, Murphy says he uses pot to ease pain from a degenerating disc and to help with a neurological disease. Prescription pain medicine didn’t agree with him. By using cannabis he’s been able to stop prescription pain meds altogether. 

But that’s just the beginning of Murphy’s story. 

On the door of PWT, there are a multitude of decorations, drawings and announcements; the largest and most prominent is an 8” x 11” white piece of paper emblazoned with the words “Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport” in large, plain black font. 

“I could be a millionaire right now and no one would know who I was if I just wanted to deal pot,” Murphy says. He claims he’s not in it for money. If he were, he wouldn’t be testifying to change laws in Honolulu, organizing petition drives and operating out in the open. 

Indeed, Murphy can be found online, in print and in the public advocating for legal medical cannabis. He says he’s been with too many suffering people, literally at their last dying breaths, not to take action. “As a man I couldn’t face myself in the morning if I didn’t help people on a personal level,” he says.

Murphy first fought for legalized medical marijuana in Virginia, then in California. He moved to Maui in 2002. One of the reasons to come here was to push for a working system of medical cannabis distribution for patients. In other states critics cite difficulties with interdiction (pot being illegally transferred across state lines). In Maui, that’s not an issue since Hawaii doesn’t border any other states. Interestingly however, being in Maui brings up other interdiction issues. For example, a patient can’t legally bring pot from one island to the next. The federal government doesn’t recognize any form of legal marijuana and controls the waterways and airways between islands. 

Though cannabis for patients is not kapu (prohibited) here, to acquire cannabis, patients first need a doctor’s recommendation. There are several doctors on-island who recommend it for specific ailments. Patients then register with the state Narcotics Enforcement Division and receive a blue registration card. Registered patients may have pot, grow it or have someone grow it for them. If there’s a third party involved or if any money changes hands, they’ve broken the law. Murphy, whose PWT organization has more than 300 members, says 90-95 percent of patients can’t grow the medicine they need themselves. 

It’s this wrinkle, Murphy says, PWT was trying to smooth over. “The law’s kapakai. It’s unworkable,” he says. 

According to Murphy, members go through the following process: he or his staff has the patient fill out some initial paperwork. They check blue card certification status and the patient’s medical records. Members are required to sign a document saying they are knowingly committing an act of civil disobedience, since “doing reefer” is illegal according to federal law. Finally, patients pay $100 to become a member of a medical marijuana cooperative; as a member, they have access to caregivers’ marijuana in return for a “storage fee.” State quantity limits apply, and if members can’t afford the storage fee, it’s waived. 

Whether that model of getting pot to patients is legal or not will be the crux of the court case in February. The Maui Police Department says it isn’t. Regardless, Murphy asserts, PWT operated in this fashion since 2002 without serious interference. “Our doors are open. The police could’ve walked in anytime and seen what we’re all about,” says Murphy. 

Murphy thinks he might know why he and others were arrested now, instead of years ago. On November 17, 2007, Murphy says he was robbed and pistol-whipped by intruders. He says they broke his front door down. After the episode he required 14 stitches across his forehead. Murphy alleges the robbers stole $300 and pot. When police came to investigate, he claims in a court case he filed against the Chief of Police, Maui Police Department, the county and the state, he recognized two of the officers as the former masked intruders. At that point, according to Murphy, the investigation into the robbery, which netted nothing, turned into an investigation into his medical marijuana, which also netted nothing. He filed suit on October 31. Eleven days later, Patients Without Time was busted. 

Since both cases are pending in court, Maui Police can’t comment too specifically. But Vice Section Commander Captain Gerald Matsunaga says “there’s no evidence marijuana is a cure for anything, that’s why law enforcement is against it.” Still, he says his officers aren’t bothering with medical marijuana patients “with legitimate medical marijuana permits if they are operating within the law.” Though patients or caregivers may legally grow seven plants (three mature and four immature), Matsunaga says they catch people “with over 100 plants.” People they arrest for cocaine, crystal meth or oxycontin often have marijuana on them too, according to Matsunaga.  

Maui Chief of Police Thomas Phillips backs up his captain’s sentiments, saying he personally has never heard of a contact between a certified user and MPD where the user is actually acting within the law. 

Phillips wrote to the state legislature in January testifying against a proposed task force studying the efficacy of current medical cannabis distribution rules. “Marijuana has been determined to be the gateway drug. 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 nations. Maui County and the State of Hawaii doesn’t [sic] need more marijuana related crimes, and more people addicted to marijuana,” Phillips wrote. 

Speaking with Maui Time Weekly he said, “We’ve seen where the marijuana industry has financed other drugs, where you could make more money on it.” Phillips asserts that most criminal problems relate back to drugs and alcohol. “We’re opposed to all of them,” he says. Even the illegal sale of pharmaceuticals is a “growing problem” on island, according to the chief. 

There is opposition to Patients Without Time within the community as well. George Fontaine, a retired MPD captain and recent unsuccessful candidate for the South Maui State House seat, penned a Viewpoint piece in the November 30 issue of The Maui News. “I certainly don’t want a neighborhood pot shop in my community and I am certain many of you don’t either,” he wrote. He ended his piece by admonishing his former political rival, state Rep. Joe Bertram III (D – Kihei), a medical marijuana supporter and user, to concentrate on loftier matters than medical pot. “The small minority of drug dealers and users can wait,” wrote Fontaine. 

The state legislature decided medical use of “Maui wowie” should be allowed back in 2000. With the vote, Hawaii became the first of now 13 states with medical marijuana programs  and the first where lawmakers introduced the change instead of citizens. There is widespread support on Maui and across the Aloha State for easing marijuana restrictions. A 2005 Maui News poll found nine of 10 residents thought the U.S. Congress should amend cannabis laws. Participation in the state medical registry program has grown 87 percent since 2006, according to the Department of Public Safety, with 867 registered users in Maui County alone.  

Still, questions remain about whether current law adequately allows the medical marijuana program to function if it simultaneously bans dispensaries like PWT. Hawaii’s state congress overwhelmingly voted “aye” last session to form a task force to study the issue. Ultimately, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle in July. She wrote that a task force would just be looking to “circumvent federal law.” Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, meaning it’s considered less medically useful than crack or ice.

Rep. Bertram says that’s just a “smokescreen.” He says there are plenty of state laws that stand in opposition to federal laws and that the police and the Governor work for the state, not the feds. “They’re actually abrogating their responsibility as employees of the state [if they prevent the medical marijuana program from working],” he says. “The Attorney General [Mark Bennett] said this himself.” 

Bertram, a registered blue card holder, isn’t sure what Maui patients will do if PWT’s doors are permanently closed. “Many patients are elderly and don’t know where to go. Kalama Park, I guess,” he ventured. He says there’s too much heavy-handedness in the way pot is dealt with in Hawaii, too many people are uninformed about marijuana’s “scientifically proven benefits” and that police don’t understand it takes “too much” for most people to grow the type of ganja they need to treat their particular ailment. 

Bertram has a radical plan for reducing the stigma: he’s going to start growing cannabis in his legislative office in Honolulu starting in January 2009. “That way, people will be able to see it’s just a plant,” he says. “It grows. You can touch it.”

Bertram argues that the money MPD spent to run a two-year investigation of PWT could’ve been used for other things. In 2005, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and 500 other economists endorsed a Harvard University report on the costs of cannabis regulation. The report found $10-$14 billion could be saved annually by switching the national focus from cannabis prohibition to cannabis regulation.

Back in Kihei, Terry Murphy remains in a quandary. The state has said it believes in the benefits of medical marijuana. But policymakers struggled with how to limit abuse. So, unlike any other drug prescribed by doctors, patients were asked to cultivate their own. At this point, however, many find that unworkable. Meanwhile, MPD is tasked with enforcing the current law on the books, not one in discussions in Honolulu. And everything is happening under the umbrella of federal prohibition. Some patients bypass the law and self-medicate illegally, while others endure without until another, legal alternative becomes available. 

Democracy may not be a spectator sport. But, until the rulebook changes, penalties in this game may include pain, distress, jail time and possibly worse. MTW