Medical marijuana patients may have to find new caregivers because of language in new law

HB 1284, the medical marijuana regulatory bill signed into law by Bill Ritter in June, is so complicated that many of its elements still aren't widely understood by MMJ patients and caregivers -- or people who are both. Consider the plight of one patient-caregiver, who recently learned he'll have to choose a new caregiver, and reduce the number of people for whom he cares, due to a little-known passage.

The circular language in question reads as follows: "A patient who has designated a primary caregiver for himself or herself may not be designated as a primary caregiver for another patient."

The impact of this portion of the law is potentially far-reaching. According to MMJ advocate Timothy Tipton, representatives of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have recommended for years that husbands name their wives as their caregiver, and vice versa. But the sentence above disallows that practice. And the same goes for patient-caregivers who've designated friends and colleagues to supply their medication in exchange for doing the same for them.

That's the case for one patient-caregiver in the Denver area who agreed to speak to Westword on the subject if we agreed not to use his name. He's 59-years old and has suffered from lupus, an autoimmune disorder that can attack joints, tendons and organs, including the skin, for more than a decade. He says since beginning to smoke medical marijuana to address his symptoms, his quality of life has improved dramatically.

"I was taking twenty or 22 different prescription medications, including Prednisone, and basically puking them up as soon as I took them," he recalls. "Then my doctor at the time advised me to try smoking marijuana, and I've been able to reduce the other medications to fourteen, and no Prednisone at all unless I have to have surgery, which I do on occasion. And I can keep the medications down."

Before long, he decided to become his own caregiver. A couple of years later, he'd gained enough experience, and had enough medicine, "to help other people," he notes. "I became a caregiver for one patient first, and then another. And in working that out and learning how to grow, I became friends with another fellow who's also a patient. And he became my caregiver, and I became his caregiver. But now, the new law prohibits that, as I read it."

He's right. According to health department spokesman Mark Salley, "the language that you can't be a patient and a caregiver, too, does represent a change from the past." As a result, "if someone is a patient and something comes through for them identifying that patient as a caregiver, the application would be denied. Or if someone is already on the registry as a caregiver and the completed application came through for them as a patient, and they were already listed as someone's caregiver, then that caregiver relationship would have to cease."

This edict presents a whole range of complications for the patient-caregiver.

"I'm a very small operation," he says. "Even though I have two legal patients and could flower nine plants, I only flower four in two small closets that I use -- and when I had extra product, extra medicine, I would give it to Timothy. But that's also prohibited now unless I fill out a 25-page form and pay all these fees to be a grower for one of these big dispensary operations, and I'm too small for that."

As a result, "I think I'm going to have to do is just become my own caregiver and only flower three plants -- and I won't be able to help anybody else. I won't be able to help my current caregiver if he has a crop failure or something like that, and I won't be able to help my other patients. They'll have to go to some other center."

That's better than nothing, the patient-caregiver concedes, but he still thinks this aspect of the law "isn't well thought-out from a patient's point of view, or from a caregiver's point of view. It's focused on these big operations, and because of the way it's written, I'm being forced to cut back, even though I'm really small.

"I do think there was a kind of gold rush that started to happen a couple of years ago, and certainly there are doctors out there who are signing papers for people who don't have a real medical problem -- and that's an abuse of the system. But there are also real patients like me, who have chronic pain and chronic nausea and other problems that medical marijuana actually helps. It was meant for compassionate use, and I think the congressmen and the senators and the governor and the health department and the Department of Revenue have lost sight of that."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts