By Polly Keary, Editor
Inside a building about a mile west of Monroe, marked outside only by a large green cross, a woman waits in a chair in a plain lobby for the man behind the glass to make a phone call.
He is calling her doctor to make sure her paperwork recommending her medication is legit, and she’s a little impatient. Not every place makes her go through this.
But it’s worth the wait; she has had multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years, and she thinks that her relatively symptom-free life has a lot to do with that medication.
“I was diagnosed in ’87 and the only medication I’ve ever used is marijuana,” she said.
The woman’s neurologist confirms the her recommendation, and James Duvall, owner of Hi Way 2 Wellness, signs her up for a temporary membership and allows her into another room where she will be able to select from a products ranging from topical oils, ingestible marijuana-infused snacks and drinks and a selection of marijuana varietiels in exchange for a donation.
With the coming of legal recreational cannabis in Washington this winter, the future of “collective gardens,” as outlets for medical marijuana are called, is uncertain.
Just as unclear are the laws that regulate such collectives in the state. So Duvall polices himself to a standard far higher than many of his peers, and he wishes everyone would, he said.
The letter of the law
James Duvall, a loquacious man in his early 40s, is very well-versed in the rules.
Between visitors to the small building that once housed a military surplus store just west of Monroe, where for the last five months he has operated a “collective garden,” or outlet for medical marijuana, he expounds on them at length.
“This is not a dispensary,” he said emphatically, dropping into a couch in his sparse waiting room.”They are actually not legal in this state. A dispensary sells the product and pays the grower. This a collective garden.”
The “garden,” as it is termed, is actually the back room, where the products are kept. Collective gardens were designed as a way for small groups of people to grow, process and transport medical marijuana.
Each collective can have only 10 members at a time; and there are limits on how much marijuana is allowed per member.
Even the more strict collectives like Duvall’s are based on a liberal interpretation of the laws; the back room is technically the “garden,” and memberships need not last longer than it takes to leave the building.
But in some ways, Duvall goes beyond what the law requires. He calls doctors to make sure the recommendation is valid; while the doctor’s recommendation is not a prescription in the formal sense of the word, Duvall still is careful that it’s from a real doctor, and that it’s on tamper-proof paper in accordance with law.
And when others bend the rules, he gets annoyed.
“By law the products are not supposed to be visible, and we’re not supposed to advertise. But there are places that do,” he said. “I’m sick of everyone bashing on the county for enforcing the rules, and not doing it correctly. Do it correctly and don’t just cry and whine.”
One place in a nearby town openly advertises on the street, he said. And others have the products out in the open where anyone who walks through the door can see them. That’s inviting trouble, he said.
“A lot of the federal raids to date have been completely justified,” he said. “I have not heard of the feds doing an unjustified raid yet.”
The sick vs. the recreational user
He’s also not crazy about the ease with which people who want recreational pot can get medical recommendations.
Indeed, one man who came in was disappointed when he learned that he didn’t have adequate paperwork to access the back room. It costs about $150 to get a recommendation anywhere, he complained, whereas he could get a prescription for any other medication for the cost of an office visit.
“I’m not a huge fan of the 18-21 year old with a recommendation for any little thing, because yeah, it’s true nearly anyone can get one. I like the medical patient more. I like helping the people who truly need it,” said Duvall, who decided to open a collective after his job in the construction industry tailed off during the recession, but who has had an interest in, and various roles in, the medical marijuana community for many years.
Part of the reason that the laws regarding collective gardens are so broadly interpreted and ambiguous is because the law was passed by citizen’s initiative, which typically comes with a mandate and little instruction. Also a part of the law that the legislature developed to accommodate the initiative, which would have set up a statewide registry for garden participants in order to make sure only people with significant medical issues were members, was vetoed by the governor.
In spite of the legality of the operation, Hi Way 2 Wellness is outside Monroe city limits for a reason; Monroe has yet to allow collective gardens in the city, and the city isn’t alone. So far, besides Everett and Mukilteo, no incorporated city in Snohomish County has allowed collectives. Some cities have zoned them out of the city, others have passed ordinances declaring the city will abide by federal law, which still prohibits any use of marijuana, and some have passed extended moratoriums against the collectives.
According to Duvall, Snohomish County isn’t particularly keen on collectives either, and he said he’s been hassled by various county agencies.
But his neighbors are supportive, he said.
“All our neighbors love us,” Duvall said. “They understand we are here to help people.”
The medical user
Helping people is why Duvall is there, too, he said.
“I had a lot of friends who were sick, and they were interested in it,” he said. “It has really pushed me to stay in it.”
He’s seen people with arthritis go from being unable to write to being able to play piano after regular use of THC-infused oil on their hands, he said. And people with irritated digestive tracts from cancer treatments or kidney dialysis have had great relief from THC-infused lollipops or pills with cannabinoids in them.
On the whole, he said, he encourages people to use ingestible products rather than smoking marijuana.
“We all know smoking is bad for your lungs,” he said. But in any form, it’s still better for you than a lot of prescription meds, he said.
“It doesn’t kill your liver or eat your kidneys alive, like all that stuff handed out by the pharmaceutical companies,” he stated. “This plant to this day has never killed anyone. They can’t even say that about Tylenol. They can’t say that about Nyquil, but you can buy that over the counter.”
In the garden
The counter in Hi Way 2 Wellness is well-hidden behind a windowless door. In the small back room, a single glass case resembles a counter in a brightly lit, if spartan, health food coop.
In fact, almost everything in it or on it is professionally packaged snack food, labeled much as are locally-made products in any specialty shop.
There are Rice Krispy treats, gummy bears, cookies, lollipops, goldfish-type crackers and tea, and a cooler holds bottles of soda, all made in Washington and bearing nutritional information on the back, often including the amount of THC per serving.
There are also inhalers much like the electric cigarette favored by people trying to quit smoking.
There are lotions and oils for topical treatments.
And there are a few square glass jars, each about half full of evenly-sized marijuana buds, looking quite a bit like an herbal store’s jars of clover. Each has a colorful name, such as Lemon Drop.
There are no pipes, bongs, rolling papers or other “head shop” paraphernalia, nor are there any products other than those with THC in them.
As she waited for her paperwork to go through so she could get access to that room, the woman with MS said she is glad she doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble with the law to get the marijuana she said has made her feel better for so many years.
“I told my doctor in the ’80s in that I had MS, and I said, ‘I smoke pot, what will that do?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s illegal, but some of my patients have had good results,'” she said. “I know bad people do bad things, but if it’s your regular daily medicine? I have bad days, but for most part it helps with the inflammation and with the spasticity in my legs. And it takes the edge off, and de-stresses you, because this is stressful.”
She wears a little step counter on her ankle to keep track of how much walking she does each day.
She lifted the cuff of her jeans to display it.
“I got 10,000 steps so far today,” she said with a smile, and got up and stepped into the back room.