By Hunter T. George
SEATTLE - It's not advertised on billboards, and it's not on any list of health plan services, but people with AIDS, cancer and other diseases know where to find marijuana: Green Cross Patient Co-op.
"They're not doing it for profit," said a partially paralyzed man picking up marijuana he said he uses to control muscle spasms. "This is a service."
The Green Cross has been providing the drug to the sick for five years, usually for free or at cost. It does so in a working-class West Seattle neighborhood with only occasional hassles from authorities, even though the "medicine" is illegal.
"They pretty much leave us alone," said Joanna McKee, co-founder of the co-op. "I think they just realize we're not a problem."
Although McKee had nothing to do with drafting Initiative 685, the Nov.4 Washington ballot measure that sought to legalize the medical use of marijuana, heroin, and other drugs - indeed she found it flawed - she said the Green Cross could serve as a model for a distribution network of marijuana clubs that serve people with medical needs.
She and other supporters of legalizing drugs for medical use plan to draft a new initiative dealing only with marijuana.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the nonprofit Green Cross continues to grow. After starting out with a few plants for her own use, she now serves about 200 patients, McKee said. They are mostly people infected with HIV' other patients suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis and injuries. An average of six patients stop by each day, she said.
Green Cross is operating in the jurisdiction of King County prosecutor Norm Maleng, but he and the Seattle police apparently are willing to leave Green Cross alone.
"We have no particular issue with that group," said Officer Carmen Best, a Seattle police spokeswoman.
Maleng thinks most people don't mind allowing the severely ill to have access to marijuana in controlled situations. He opposed Initiative 685, he said, because it covered heroin and LSD, and its revision of criminal policies could have led to the release of 300 felons serving time for drug possession.
"We would welcome an intellectual honest debate about a true medical marijuana law where doctors could prescribe marijuana as pain relief for patients suffering severe and terminal illnesses or battling side effects of radiation treatment," said Don Satterberg, Maleng's chief of staff.
"The Green Cross is a welcome contrast to the I-685 message. They're only after recognition that marijuana, and no other drugs, can play a role in pain relief for people who are suffering from terminal illnesses and other terrible diseases."
The Green Cross was founded by McKee, 54, and Ronald "Stitch" Miller, 51, in the early 1990s.
McKee began using marijuana to control pain from a back injury caused in a 1981 car accident. She can walk, but spends much of her time in a wheelchair.
Now living off her monthly Social Security check, McKee smokes about a gram of marijuana a day, usually a few puffs from a pipe every few hours, she said.
"Constant pain leads to depression, and depression can be terminal," she said. "I wake up in the morning to a giant red ball of pain. I can't think. I can't hardly move."
"When I smoke, it distracts my mind around the hurt."
At the Green Cross house, marijuana is dispensed in plastic prescription bottles bearing labels that warn users not to drive or operate machinery while using the "medication." Patients sometimes stay to smoke; a housemate delivers to those too sick to visit.
"Thank God for Green Cross," said Dr. Rob Killian, a Tacoma physician who supported Initiative 685.
Still, Green Cross is not immune to legal problems.
McKee was arrested in 1995 in a highly publicized bust that netted 162 plants; the case was dropped due to a faulty search warrant. Federal agents last spring seized a shipment of marijuana valued at $300,000. A Green Cross patient, Martin Martinez, recently started a 90-day prison term for growing 88 plants for himself, an amount that disturbed Maleng's office. In October, Olympia police seized 18 plants from a man who said he was growing them for a friend with AIDS.
To keep police attention to a minimum, McKee and Miller said, they no longer grow marijuana in the house. Instead, they said, they rely on suppliers who charge about $1,200 a quarter pound.
The co-op has a Web site - the address is www.hemp.net/greencross.
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