Seattle police crack down on medical-pot purveyor

By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times staff reporter
Last week, 77-year-old Ruby Seals felt good enough to come to the Green Cross Patient Co-op in person to pick up her marijuana.

Before that, she was in a hospice, battling pancreatic cancer. But marijuana, she says, helped her turn around the pain and vomiting that caused her to lose more than 60 pounds.

This week, Seals won't be able to get the marijuana her doctor recommended. On Joanna McKee's West Seattle garage door is a big sign: "CLOSED." Beside it, she posted the "cease and desist" letter she received Friday from the Seattle Police Department.

McKee has been openly helping patients get marijuana for nearly a decade, providing what she calls "a community service" to help qualified patients avoid buying pot on the street.

Now, less than two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California cannabis clubs cannot legally distribute marijuana as a "medical necessity" for seriously ill patients, McKee must decide whether it's worth the risks to continue her mission.

She doesn't want to go to jail, but neither does she want to abandon 1,500 patients, many of whom she says desperately need the drug to control vomiting, nausea, tremors and other conditions for which prescription medications haven't worked.

Seals swears marijuana saved her life. "It's the only thing that helps me," she says. "It keeps me from throwing up, and it helps me to eat."


Although a state law passed by voters in 1998 allows patients with specified diseases to legally possess marijuana if they have permission from their doctor, so-called cannabis clubs and cooperatives such as Green Cross have been the subject of dispute for years. Police have long been suspicious that patients - and those who help them get marijuana, such as McKee - are simply drug users and suppliers.

Both the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and local federal prosecutors concede that state law doesn't protect organizations like Green Cross. "We've always had a pretty consistent discussion that what they're doing doesn't fit within the statute," says Dan Satterberg, spokesman for Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng.

At the same time, prosecutors have said they have no interest in hauling sick people into court. In most places around the country, obtaining convictions of patients or those who help them has been difficult.

The law says each patient can have one caregiver who can grow or supply marijuana, and each caregiver can have one patient at a time. McKee argues that could mean "one patient now, and one patient in one minute."

After the Supreme Court ruling, both state and federal prosecutors said nothing had changed. But in McKee's neighborhood, complaints to police from a block-watch group began mounting.

In June, McKee says, police began talking to Green Cross patients and asking McKee questions.

Police spokesman John Hayes says the Supreme Court decision clarified a gray area, and last week's letter simply explains the Police Department's current understanding of the limits of the law.

But the letter also warns of "arrest and prosecution" for having more than one patient.

Leo Poort, a department legal adviser, says it's clear the law doesn't protect a caregiver with more than one patient. He realizes that the law left unclear how patients who couldn't grow their own marijuana would obtain it, he said. But, he adds, "It's not fair to law enforcement to have a law passed by the people and not have it enforced as written."

Dr. Rob Killian, a Seattle family-practice doctor who was a major force behind Initiative 692, which allowed certain patients to legally use marijuana, believes police in Seattle and elsewhere around Puget Sound have recently stepped up busts of patients and suppliers.

"There seems to be something going on," he said. "I'm afraid, honestly. Where is this going? Is the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) going to go after doctors? Are they going to go after our licenses?"

Killian notes that police have long been skeptical about the legitimacy of using marijuana for medical reasons.

Last year, Seattle police produced a training video that depicts a hippie faker trying to take advantage of the medical-marijuana law. The video begins with a clean-cut officer politely knocking at the door of "Mr. Rumpwhistle," a dark-glasses-wearing "patient" in no apparent pain or discomfort, who spacily offers the officer a plate of brownies and produces a doctor's letter signed by "Dr. Timothy Leary," the infamous LSD proponent who died five years ago.

Hayes says the video wasn't intended to be disrespectful toward legitimate patients, but to help illustrate the types of situations officers can encounter, and to outline a protocol for collecting evidence, including letters from physicians to verify compliance with the law.

McKee maintains there is no other good way for some patients to get marijuana. McKee requires, as does the law, a signed statement from a patient's doctor and asks for a donation, but says she hasn't turned away those who can't pay.

"Is it better to have these people roaming the streets in their wheelchairs and getting mugged?" she asks.

Dr. Greg Carter, a Centralia rehabilitation-medicine specialist, e-mailed Seattle Mayor Paul Schell yesterday on Green Cross' behalf. He said he has recommended Green Cross to 30 or 40 patients, most with multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), spinal-cord injuries or chronic pain.

Carter said Green Cross always checks the legitimacy of the doctor's letter and will deliver to homebound patients. "It would be a tragedy to lose that resource," Carter wrote.

Green Cross lawyers and police say they will continue to discuss Green Cross' situation. "If (McKee) is making a good-faith effort to comply with the law," says Poort, that will lessen the chance of investigation and prosecution.

Seals and other Green Cross patients hope a solution comes soon.

"I don't know what we'll do," she says. "We can't go out on the street and get it. That's the horrible part. It means taking life away from me, as far as I'm concerned.

"What are people like me going to do? Suffer until they die? That ain't right. I don't care what they think - it's wrong. They should give (marijuana) to people, people sick like me, people dying with cancer. What the police did is terrible. They need to learn where priorities lie."

Carol M. Ostrom can be reached at 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com.