A local woman's struggle with arthritis and muscle spasms compelled her to start a business that would educate others on the benefits, growth and consumption of medical marijuana.
Cynthia Townsley Willis, 52, and two partners whom she declined to identify opened the Medical Marijuana Patient Services Smoke Shop, 1252 W. McAndrews Road, Medford, in late February. The shop is one of seven in Southern Oregon that caters to the needs of medical marijuana patients.
“I kind of formed the shop in self-defense so patients could ask for their smoke needs,” said Willis, who has an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card and is a registered caregiver, which allows her to possess marijuana for other card holders.
Approved by voters in November 1998, the law permits people suffering from debilitating medical conditions confirmed by a doctor to use small amounts of marijuana without penalty. After completing the Oregon Medical Marijuana program card application and providing proof of ongoing illness and a doctor's signature, the patient, a caregiver and the marijuana provider or grower are issued cards.
A quarterly survey done in July by the Department of Human Services revealed that 20,300 patients are cardholders. Jackson County has the third highest number of cardholders, 1,931, surpassed only by Lane and Multnomah counties. Since January 2006, the number of cardholders has doubled, said Lt. Mike Dingeman of Oregon State Police's drug enforcement section.
“It's a huge need and the need is for people to be educated enough to be self-sufficient or to be able to find a provider,” she said.
Willis' shop provides networking between patients and providers, books, clinics, pipes (95 percent are locally made), bongs, vaporizers, rolling paper and Bob Marley tapestries. The store is open to the public and she cards only for age for retail products. The business has grown to more than 400 members who pay $20 a year to receive discounts on clinics, retail items and classes.
Prior to opening the shop, Willis volunteered for the THC Foundation and VoterPower, an organization group that advocates reforming marijuana laws. She also served as assistant manager at VoterPower for about two years. Willis opened the shop after Puff's Smoke Shop moved to Ashland.
The shop is licensed for commercial use with the city of Medford, and it is registered as a public benefit nonprofit with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.
Willis said the shop is staffed with volunteers who are OMMP cardholders. She said she only works with cardholders because they are able to better understand the needs of patients.
Willis has been a medical marijuana patient for seven years. Her health problems were the result of being “the family rag doll,” she said. The marijuana alleviates her muscle spasms, and she often takes it in capsule form before she goes to bed to help her sleep. Willis also found that mixing it with rubbing alcohol and applying it to her joints and muscles minimized the pain.
“Medical marijuana, if used responsibly, will not cut the pain but cuts the edge off,” she said.
People in business who use medical marijuana often prefer the capsule form because it lets “your body be relaxed and out of pain but still lets you use your mind,” Willis said.
Willis said the patients who come to her shop range from 13 to 92 years old.
“In seven years, I have helped license 7,000 people” by helping prepare their paperwork and teaching them how to navigate the system, Willis said.
The shop hosts clinics about once a month. At the clinic a doctor is available to review health history and sign the OMMP applications. Many people don't feel comfortable going through their regular health-care provider, so they visit the clinic, where they know they will find a sympathetic physician, Willis said.
Willis said she is a caregiver for about five people. As a caregiver, she said, she frequently house-sits for growers, helps bake marijuana into foods if the cardholder is unable to and delivers marijuana when needed. Caregivers also can be a patient's grower under the law. Willis' husband, Larry, is registered as her caregiver.
“In case he takes my car and it has medicine (marijuana) in it, he's covered,” she said.
Willis said she is unable to grow her own plants because her backyard is too small and she obtains marijuana through local growers.
Lt. Mike Dingeman of Oregon State Police's drug enforcement section said there are 15,016 grow sites registered in the state. Willis' business works closely with less than a dozen Southern Oregon providers, she said.
“I've kinda been a matchmaker so to speak,” she said. “I need to make sure the provider is someone I have faith and trust in.”
Under Oregon law, each grower can provide marijuana only for four cardholders, which may include himself. Only six mature plants and 18 seedlings or starts are allowed per patient, and they must be grown at one location that has been registered with the state.
“The patient, caregiver and grower may possess in combination up to 24 ounces of medical marijuana (per patient),” said Medford police Deputy Chief Tim George.
Prior to amendments made to the law in 2006, a cardholder was limited to three ounces. Now Oregon has one of the highest possession limits of states allowing medical marijuana use, Dingeman said.
Willis uses about one ounce a week, three and a half pounds a year. She said the law makes it difficult for patients with more serious health problems such as cancer, who need nine to 13 pounds of high-quality marijuana a year.
“They spend every penny in a fight to live,” she said. “They also need someone who can bake for them because some can absolutely not inhale. It must be edible or in a capsule.”
An experienced outside grower will get eight to 13 pounds per plant, and a top-notch inside grower can get up to two pounds from a plant, Willis said.
The purchasing and selling of marijuana is illegal, according to state law. A patient may offer to pay for some of the growing costs, but not for the time, labor or product.
“The electric bill for an inside provider can cost about $500 a month,” said Willis. “For a two-patient grow it costs about $10,000 to have a successful grow.”
Patients will pay about $200 to $250 an ounce to meet the grower's expenses.
“On the street you're looking at $400,” Willis said. “Some patients continue to get it on the black market because it's someone they can trust.”
Willis said she gives about 10 percent of her own marijuana to cardholders who don't have immediate access to their own. Growers often donate the bud trimmings to Willis, who sorts the trims and gives them to patients in need.
Sometimes the shop serves as the middle ground between patient and provider. Providers often will drop off the marijuana at the shop, and the patient will pick it up there, she said.
“He (the provider) has my word that it gets to the patient unadulterated,” Willis said.
Medical marijuana use is not easy for law enforcement to monitor because of all the “fogginess” in the law, and some people take advantage of the fogginess, said Dingeman. Any questionable situations are resolved on a case-by-case basis, he said.
“It's hard to come up with black-and-white answers to the act,” Dingeman said.
“There has been a huge frustration with all of us in law enforcement when it comes to medical marijuana,” George said in an e-mail. “There is a lot more marijuana in the marketplace now, and there are a number of individuals that are using it as a way to unlawfully grow and sell weed. I can agree that there are folks that may benefit from it as a medicine, but it needs to be controlled and dispensed as such and not have the floodgates opened as now.”
George said police have not been called to Willis' shop because of marijuana or anything connected to it.
Willis said aspects of the law are frustrating for users, too, such as having to pay $100 every year to renew a card. She also said users are treated like second-class citizens, are unable to pass a urine analysis and are considered illegal if they cross the border into a state that doesn't allow medical marijuana.
“We are always having to justify ourselves,” Willis said.
Reach intern Teresa Thomas at 776-4464 or at email@example.com.