Medical marijuana grower battles fuzzy laws, thieves

Not everyone agrees that marijuana is helpful or that it should be legal.

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WALLA WALLA - Fall is a good time for Ray Wetter.

It's the season Wetter can finally harvest the crop he's painstakingly tended all summer.

Hours are spent as he fertilizes, weeds and transplants. He waters carefully, watches for spider mites and trims like crazy.

It's what he does, anyway, with what's left after thieves came this past summer and cleaned out what they could. Three times.

Wetter, who grows marijuana for medical purposes, is one of a growing number of people in Walla Walla and across the state who are permitted by Washington law to fill their own pot prescription.

Not everyone agrees with the law. While he believes Wetter is trying his best to obey the legal statutes, "the vast majority are abusing the system," Walla Walla police Sgt. Randy Allessio said. "I think there are very, very few people who honestly get therapeutic benefit from medical marijuana."

Wetter, 44, has his reasons for smoking pot. For years, the Desert Storm veteran was in nearly constant pain from an industrial accident that happened in his construction days, Wetter said.

Like it was yesterday, the scene is vivid still. Working for an asphalt company, Wetter was operating heavy equipment in the summer of 2004, grinding down a Walla Walla street in preparation for resurfacing. Part of the process was breaking down chunks of the removed asphalt to reuse as patch material, he explained.

"There was a piece sitting there, about the size of a love seat. I drove up onto it to break it down with the loader. When it came down, I felt something shift in my back."

The incident didn't initially cause pain and he finished his work week, he remembered.

When back pain did start, tests revealed the Walla Walla High School graduate had a blown disk and a sciatic nerve pinched nearly to severed.

Six summers later, he can no longer feel the back side of his right leg and most of the foot below. He wears a brace for "foot drop," a condition that makes lifting the foot while walking very difficult.

Wetter walks with a cane, even on the "good days."

Until late 2007 he was on so many medications to address pain, it gave his physicians pause.

During a routine colonoscopy, the anesthesiologist had trouble keeping Wetter under - his body was so desensitized to anesthesia by the use of drugs to quiet the nerve and "phantom" pain that he gained consciousness three times, he was told.

That's when a doctor asked Wetter if he had considered using marijuana as medicine, he said.

He had not. One try during high school convinced Wetter marijuana was not for him. "It made me tired and hungry. I thought that was what it was all about."

Proponents say studies show medical marijuana is much more than a Cheech and Chong kind of high.

According to the September issue of Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, "inhaled cannabis reduces pain and improves sleep compared to placebo, and is well tolerated by patients with chronic neuropathy, according to clinical trial data."

Investigators in Montreal assessed the effect of smoking pot on pain intensity in 23 patients with chronic, post-traumatic or postsurgical neuropathic pain. In the random, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, participants received a single measured puff of pot three times a day.

All of the volunteers in the study suffered pain that conventional therapies had failed to relieve, the journal reported.

Smoking marijuana significantly reduced average pain scores compared with those who smoked a placebo.

"We found significant improvement in measures of sleep quality and anxiety. Our results support the claim that smoked cannabis reduces pain, improves mood, and helps sleep," researchers said in their report.

Using pot has allowed Wetter to stop taking Neurontin and Valium, which made it hard to function and put him at risk for seizures, he said. "And I'm on my way to get off the third one - methadone. Or at least reducing the dose."

Wetter estimates he's regained 50 percent of his quality of life. When he smokes marijuana by bong or pipe, he can count on as long as an hour of reduced pain. The irritability that dogs him is lifted for a time, making him easier to live with, he said with a smile toward his wife, Vanessa.

Things go best when he alternates the smoking with traditional pain medication, Wetter explained, and he never drinks alcohol with either. Errands and appointments are accomplished in the mornings before his brain is under the influence, he pointed out.

"If I'm smoking, I don't drive. I treat it like alcohol."

He does smoke tobacco and wishes he didn't. "I'm trying to quit. In reality, I think they should have cigarettes in the same category as marijuana. There's worse chemicals in those. I know what's in these plants, I grow them."

Wetter has followed all the rules for using marijuana as medicine and is legally authorized, he said, pulling a laminated license from his wallet.

Getting such a permit is a matter of handing enough money over to a doctor who sets up one-day clinics all over the country, Allessio said. "He has an appointment every 20 minutes, at $250 a pop. (He) gets your money, you get your permit ... come on."

His department is working on a case now where the prescribing physician is in prison, Allessio noted. "For overprescribing."

Wetter has become an expert farmer, absorbing lessons from the Medical Marijuana's Growers Bible. State law allows him to have 48 ounces or a 60-day supply for himself and his wife, who is similarly licensed for a shoulder disability.

There are rules for the crop, which the Walla Walla couple has learned well over the past two years. For example, the plants cannot be visible above a six-foot fence. Wetter has tied the tallest plants down to ensure that, he said during a yard tour. His immediate neighbors are aware of the garden.

There was never a problem until this year. But the yard has been broken into over and over, the last time culminating in a 14-plant haul for someone, including Wetter's "Medicine Woman" plant, he said. "That was my pride and joy."

There will always be an issue when someone grows a drug in an unsecured area, Allessio said. His department deals with a medical marijuana call at least once a week and often more. "It is so prevalent that one of my investigators has THC (a regional medical marijuana foundation) on speed dial. Then we can call and see if a permit is valid."

Pot needs to be grown indoors or in a greenhouse under lock and key, he said. "Don't make yourself a target."

When it's outside, behind a fence or no, it's like putting out a free meal for the neighborhood's loose dog. "It's not going to work."

"Weed" as medicine is a complex and ongoing issue that was set up for failure in this state, the sergeant said. "I think the state Legislature screwed the pooch, from the very git go. How you can tell someone ‘You can use it, but there is no way to legally obtain it.' The state owes people an apology."

State law prohibits buying or delivering the drug, and using pot as medication violates federal law, as well. "If this is a medicine, why don't we treat it like a medicine? Even a bottle of aspirin tells you how much to take and when."

Recommendations to try marijuana for health concerns have no dosing criteria, Allessio pointed out. "Is it two puffs? Three puffs? And how long do you hold it in?"

The officer can count the number of people who have a legitimate need to smoke pot in this community "on one hand," he said. "The rest never left the hippie age."

Allessio does believe there are illnesses better managed with marijuana, such as some cancers and hepatitis B. And some growers, like Wetter, work to stay in compliance with the law.

Yet there are many more who don't and many who look for excuses to get legally high. "More often that not, we know those ‘medical marijuana patients' are also marijuana pushers. On more than one occasion, we've been able to send an informant in and buy marijuana."

To muddy things even more, the law is gray when it comes to plant yield, how long an ounce should last and what medical conditions are proven to really benefit from use of the drug, Allessio said.

Much of the smoke could clear if legislators would clarify the statute and the traditional medical community would participate, he believes. "If it's really legit, let's see the mainstream doctors step up, prescribe it, then give (patients) a way to obtain it."

Perceptions about using pot as medicine are usually colored by misinformation, said Paul Stanford, founder of The Hemp & Cannabis Foundation and THCF Medical Clinics.

Stanford has been involved in marijuana politics for 30 years and is the former Washington state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He has authored numerous articles and hosted a TV show dedicated to the subject.

"Unfortunately, patients who use medical marijuana are often viewed unfavorably by their communities and law enforcement." There is stigma and misinformation abounds, he said from his Portland, Ore., office.

It stems from the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries, Stanford feels. "These industries realized that cannabis was a threat to their profits, so they spread lies about marijuana so they don't have to compete with it.

"In fact, when marijuana was made illegal, most people didn't know that what was sold as a deadly new drug called marijuana was a common crop that everyone called hemp," he added.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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