Medical marijuana from the patient's perspective

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PHOENIX - One of the many people keeping a close eye on what the Arizona Department of Health Services will do in developing medical marijuana's rules is Eric Franks.

Franks, 27, was diagnosed at birth with cerebral palsy and has been battling muscle spasms his whole life.

"There are a lot of patients that are like me that we're praising Arizona's law,” Franks said.

Born nine weeks premature and then diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Franks has endured a lifetime of agony.

"I have joint pains, I'm more to early onset of arthritis because of my muscle spasms and putting pressure on my joints,” he said. "Cannabis allows me to sleep at night because I have spasms at night that keep me awake. It just allows me to get up, go to work, go to school, be able to sit in my classroom and not just be in agony.”

Franks uses marijuana twice a week and, actually, he prefers not to smoke it but to use other methods such as lotions, which aren’t yet available in Arizona.

"Right now, living in Arizona, until this all gets settled, I don't have other options," he said. "That image of bunches of people just partying needs to get erased because I don't do that.”

Franks admits he lives in fear and feels he is stereotyped because he uses.
"I'm running the risk of getting stigmatized, becoming a felon, sitting in a prison cell, for who knows how long, a year, two years, and then I get out of prison and now I'm a felon and now I can't get a job, all because I got caught with a little bit of a plant,” he said.

Under the new law, Franks is protected from state prosecution for using the allowed limited amounts of marijuana.

"Now people that live here, that are legitimate, don't have to worry about, oh my gosh, am I going to lose my job? Oh my gosh am I going to lose my financial aid? Am I going to lose these things because I tested positive, because I use this as a medicine?” Franks said.

Along with many others, Franks will be watching closely as the DHS formulates its plan, which will dictate how the state will regulate the sale and use of medical marijuana.

"This is a step in the right direction and I think we'll be the example for every other state in the future that chooses to do this,” he said.

People like Franks, who have a debilitating medical condition, can be treated with up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

Other patients who will be eligible for medical marijuana include those who have cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's and people who have a chronic disease that causes wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms. 

Being diagnosed with one of those medical conditions doesn't necessarily mean it will be easy for people to get a patient card.

DHS has a strict definition of the doctor-patient relationship.

"When you look at it, the number of qualified patients we have at the end are going to be directly dependent on how seriously physicians take their obligation to do a full medical assessment with folks before they write that recommendation,” said Will Humble, director of the Department of Health Services.

The rules define the doctor-patient relationship as follows: The doctor has to determine the patient has one of the conditions eligible for medical marijuana and, in doing so, the doctor must give the patient a physical exam and review their medical records, but that is just the beginning.

"They have to attest that they're willing to provide ongoing care for that patient as it relates to that medical condition," said Andrew Myers, co-director of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association. "They're not required to provide primary care for that condition, which is important for certain patient populations, veterans particularly.”

Myers said this regulation proves Arizona's health department is going to be tough on anyone trying to get a prescription for medical marijuana.

"By the way, there's a far greater regulation that exists to get a prescription for Oxycontin, for instance," he said.

For Humble, the doctor-patient relationship goes to the core of establishing a solid medical marijuana law.
"If physicians are responsible and making good decisions and really limiting their recommendations to qualified patients that have real debilitating medical conditions, we could end up with something like 10,000 qualified patients across the state,” he said.

For now it appears the doctor-patient provision isn't up for negotiation.

"If we let go of that physician-patient relationship, and have it katy bar the door like it is in other states, we could end up with 150,000 qualified patients out there," Humble said. "Now you've got a real mess on your hands."

Over the next few months as DHS continues to develop the rules and regulations for marijuana use, patients and the public will have a better understanding of the medical marijuana law that goes into effect in May.