Medical marijuana signs sprout up

Placed around area by referral firm, they have attention of law enforcement

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter



Got chronic pain? For only $150, you can get your medical marijuana card today.

That’s the message sprouting up across Clark County and other communities along the Interstate 5 corridor.

For the last several weeks, a Gig Harbor-based business, PacMed Labs, has placed hundreds of the signs in Hazel Dell, east Vancouver, downtown and elsewhere.

Kirk St. Johns, management consultant for PacMed Labs, said the signs are a marketing campaign. He said PacMed is a referral company that connects people with legitimate medical conditions to physicians who can authorize the use of medical marijuana.

“We hope that even though we’re getting a brand out there in a strange, grass-roots way, in reality, (our) reputation is going to be built on a real service,” Kirk said.

Operators inform callers about their legal rights regarding medical marijuana and which conditions qualify for use of the drug as a treatment option. Then, the caller is directed to a licensed physician in their area for an evaluation and determination of treatment options, St. Johns said.

But Mike Cooke, Clark-Skamania Drug Task Force commander, has a different perspective on the budding business that began making referrals about three months ago.

“People kind of need to get past the naive attitude toward it,” Cooke said. “It’s all about making money.”

Current state law says “qualifying patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses who, in the judgment of their health care professionals, may benefit from the medical use of marijuana, shall not be found guilty of a crime under state law for their possession and limited use of marijuana.”

Federal law does not recognize the difference between medical and recreational use of marijuana and deems its use as illegal.

Under Washington law, qualifying conditions include cancer, HIV, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and intractable pain, which is defined as pain unrelieved by standard medical treatments and medications.

People who call PacMed Labs’ referral line are informed they must provide valid Washington state identification. If a person has documentation identifying they have a qualifying medical condition, they pay $150 for an appointment with a physician. The physician reviews the documentation, confirms the condition and then decides whether to authorize the use of medical marijuana, St. Johns said.

People who do not have documentation of a medical condition pay $200 for an appointment, where the physician will evaluate the patient and then determine treatment options, St. Johns said.

But Cooke said when he called the phone number on the signs, he had a different experience.

Cooke didn’t identify himself as a law enforcement officer. Instead, he said he saw the signs and wanted more information.

The operator ran through the list of qualifying conditions and emphasized the most common condition cited was intractable pain, Cooke said. The operator explained that the intractable pain condition was the most vague in terms of diagnosis and informed Cooke of the pricing for appointments, Cooke said.

“They were in essence coaching me in what illness to have to get my card,” he said.

But St. Johns insists PacMed Labs is not a card mill that issues authorization for all who request it.

In the last 90 days, 3,298 people in the state called PacMed Labs. Of those, 2,991 were turned away or did not qualify for a clinic evaluation, he said. Of the 298 applicants who had an evaluation, 258 were considered eligible for medical marijuana use, St, Johns said.

“We’re dealing with real physicians who will not put their regular practice, their reputations … on the line for $150,” St. Johns said.

After learning of Cooke’s experience with the call center, St. Johns said the definition of intractable pain is ambiguous, which is why the operator tried to clarify the language. As a result of Cooke’s call, the company will review its call center script and modify the script to alleviate any misunderstandings, St. Johns said.

In Clark County, just the presence of the signs has caused a stir. Cooke said he’s received countless calls from community members upset about seeing the signs plastered across town.

The city of Vancouver has also received complaints and is working to remove the signs from the public right-of-way.