For Mike Rogers, the pain began about five years ago. A dozen years as a carpenter, plus bricklaying, carpet installation and several years delivering furniture took a toll on his back.
“I had severe back pain that brought me to my knees; I couldn’t walk,” said Rogers, 44, of Sterling Heights.
On some days, he felt no discomfort. But sneezing, leaning over a table or pulling the cord to start a lawnmower could trigger intense pain and stop him in his tracks.
Periods of respite disappeared over a year ago, so he sought relief from the steady pain by visiting a chiropractor. The first spinal adjustment brought some relief. Hot baths and other direct-heat treatment also helped — but not enough. Twice-weekly visits to the chiropractor were unaffordable.
With no health insurance for other treatments and saying he had “nothing else to lose,” Rogers opted for medical marijuana.
He saw an ad for a physician in Hazel Park, explained his suffering and the doctor asked if he had medical records to back up his claims. Rogers replied that he could get the documents. He said the doctor told him it wasn’t necessary and completed the certification form to recommend that Rogers be added to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Registry.
The fee for the consultation: $150.
The applicant/patient form — downloaded from the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs — was easy to complete, caused no confusion and was simple to submit, Rogers said.
Patients needing a caregiver must also provide that person’s name.
Under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Program, the Bureau of Health Professions reviews applications to ensure they are complete. By statute, the state must issue a medical marijuana registry identification card within five days if information on the form is verified.
However, even before the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled this summer that medical marijuana cannot be sold through private shops and dispensaries, virtually cutting off access to the drug for many users, patients waited months to get their marijuana drug cards.
Currently, the bureau is issuing registry cards for original applications received in April.
“No one is being held accountable in government for this intolerable delay,” said Rick Thompson, editor of Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine and a member of the Michigan Association of Compassion Centers.
“It’s reprehensible and unfortunate. If it took five months to get a driver’s license to you, the secretary of state would lose her job.”
The MMRA advises patients to keep a copy of their application while awaiting notification from the state whether their application has been approved, denied or terminated, because the documents have the same legal effect as a registry identification card and can be shown to law enforcement officials.
But Thompson said police often doubt the validity of the forms because they are user-generated and can be forged easily. He believes the state should issue a certified letter bearing the state seal and a patient ID number to applicants awaiting their card.
“The reality is not issuing these cards in a timely manner puts people in jail,” he said. “What might be acceptable at one marijuana distribution center might be different for another.”
Rogers said he waited six months before his medical marijuana card arrived in the mail. He said he is unaware of anyone having a difficult time proving to police that their completed forms or registry ID cards are valid.
He grows some marijuana on his own. Under Michigan law, patients are allowed to grow up to 12 plants or can designate a caregiver to grow for them. Caregivers can grow a dozen plants for up to five patients each.
Rogers also purchases the drug from a woman he met through Craigslist, paying $45 for one-eighth of an ounce. When they met, she asked about his need for medical marijuana, and discussed different strains of the drug. She recommended “XXX” and “train wreck.”
“I only do it at night before I go to bed, so I don’t need much,” said Rogers, saying that his pain has been dulled “80, 90 percent.”
He said that when he can afford insurance, he’ll undergo surgery.
Not all ailments qualify a person for the medical marijuana registry, which exempts qualified users from state laws that make possession and use of marijuana illegal.
Rejections by doctors are common, said Thompson.
“Oftentimes, patients misunderstand and think they need medical marijuana,” he said, citing anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder as examples of conditions that do not qualify.
The Medical Marihuana Act, passed by 63 percent of voters in 2008, requires that patients receiving the drug must suffer from a debilitating medical condition, including:
• Cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, agitation of Alzheimer’s disease or nail patella.
• A chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that causes one or more of the following: cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, and severe or persistent muscle spasms.
• Any medical treatment or condition adopted by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
In the first year of the program, 115 petitions were filed with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to expand the list with specific ailments. However, no hearings have been added to expand the list, Thompson said.
Technically, marijuana cannot be prescribed by doctors because it is categorized by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug. Under Michigan’s medical marijuana law, doctors must certify a patient’s debilitating medical condition and can only recommend the use of pot as treatment.
The latest figures released by the state show 181,303 original and renewal application have been submitted since April 6, 2009. Nearly 20,000 applications were rejected, mostly due to incomplete forms or missing documentation.
More than 105,000 medical marijuana cards have been issue to patients.
The number of caregivers has not been released.
Critics claim some patients are getting the recommendation without seeing a doctor in person.
“Some physicians push the boundaries just like some patients and caregivers may push the boundaries,” Thompson said. “The vast majority of physicians are doing it the right way.”
The elderly and others who are physically incapable of growing marijuana on their own can rely on a caregiver. Caregivers must attest that they are at least 21 years old, have no convictions of felony drug offenses and must provide the name of qualified patients for whom they provide marijuana. Patients under age 18 must have consent of a parent or guardian for medical decisions and must be the minor’s caregiver.
The fee to submit the application: $100.
“The forms are very user-friendly,” Thompson said. “The intimidating part is paying $100 if you’re on a fixed income.”
Installment payments are not allowed. For qualified patients on Medicaid or receiving Social Security benefits, the fee is $25.
“Alan,” a medical marijuana patient from Macomb County, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be published because he wants no “unnecessary visits” from law enforcement officials, said a co-worker recommended an elderly doctor. Together, they made a house call to the physician’s Flint area home.
Alan told the doctor he suffered chronic pain in his knee.
“He just looked at my knee for about 30 seconds — I showed him the scar on the front of my knee,” said Alan, who added that he paid $100 for the brief visit.
He sent the applications to the state in October 2009 and received his medical marijuana registry card three months later.
To renew his card a year later, Alan visited a Roseville clinic where he paid $100. First-time medical marijuana seekers were charged $175. He still laughs about the lasting image of a man dressed as Santa Claus outside the clinic, carrying a sign advertising medical marijuana consultation and prices.
Alan said the registration process was “pretty simple” but said the law, generally, is vague. He said he grows marijuana on his own but also gets the drug from two other patients.
Cards expire too quickly?
A medical marijuana registry card is valid for one year. Critics say that’s too short. After expiration, patients hoping to continue medical marijuana use must submit renewal forms.
“Which means another visit to the doctor,” Thompson said.
Plus another $100 application fee.
“I think it should be a one-time deal,” Rogers said. “I don’t have to reapply for a driver’s license every year, and I don’t have to apply for a credit card every year.”
Thus far, patient and caregiver registrations have resulted in an $8.2 million profit for the state.
In the wake of the Court of Appeals ruling, Thompson fears that any potential changes to the law by the Legislature will cause more people to suffer.
“I’m worried they’re going to develop a lot of red tape and restrictions,” he said. “A lot of people are worried.”
“Alan” added: “Prohibition has never worked on any level. It’s not going to work on marijuana.”
By Norb Franz
For The News-Herald