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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Refer Madness: Though he's an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana, Malphrus keeps his business solely to physician referrals.

Pot Shots

The Bush administration has attacked medical marijuana on several fronts, but its latest effort to go after doctors has got the outspoken director of a Santa Cruz-based medical marijuana referral service stepping out of the shadows and onto the warpath. He offers an inside look at how medical marijuana works and why the feds have taken on a war they can't win.

By Sarah Phelan

The Marimed Referral Service on the east side of Santa Cruz exudes the edgy yet laid-back atmosphere you'd expect from an operation that occupies "Suite M for Marijuana," as Marimed director William Malphrus jokes. This is where Malphrus and his associates match doctors willing to do physical evaluations and make medical marijuana recommendations with patients who believe they qualify for the benefits of the Proposition 215-approved green stuff.

Recently, Malphrus, who favors loud shirts and speaks with a distinct Georgian drawl, has kept a low profile for fear his organization would be targeted for working in an area that is legal under California's medical marijuana law, but increasingly under fire from the feds.

But that reticence burned off like so much summer fog when the Bush administration announced this month that it wants the Supreme Court's permission to strip prescription licenses from doctors who recommend medical marijuana--an activity U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson called "no different from recommending heroin or LSD."

That's the kind of cartoonishly right-wing comment that gets medical marijuana activists fired up. Malphrus scoffs, saying marijuana is "God given, unlike heroin and LSD--not to mention cocaine and crack--which are man-made."

But to him, that kind of government rhetoric is nothing new. Nor are the threats against doctors who recommend marijuana for medicinal purposes.

When Prop. 215 passed in 1996, the Clinton administration announced that doctors who recommended medical marijuana faced losing their federal licenses to prescribe medicine. But in January 1997, doctors and patients statewide filed a class action suit against the feds, alleging the federal threat violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

In September of 2000, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that doctors can recommend marijuana to patients who may benefit from it without fear that the feds will strip them of their licenses to prescribe medicine, or otherwise impose sanctions. In his decision, Judge Alsup expanded and made permanent a previously granted temporary injunction that prevented the feds from revoking a doctor's license to prescribe medicine.

But now, the feds are arguing that Alsup's decision prevents the DEA from protecting the public, and licenses doctors to treat patients with illegal drugs. Their request to strip doctors of their licenses would gut medical marijuana laws and hurt doctor-patient relationships--and according to seasoned medical marijuana activists, doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

"The Supreme Court has so many requests, it's doubtful they'd revisit the issue of a doctor's right to prescribe medical marijuana, and they certainly cannot do anything that will impede a doctor's income," says Malphrus.

Either way, the threat hasn't put a damper on Malphrus' referral service.

"We have doctors lined up from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, and since October 2002, we've signed up almost 1,600 new patients," he says.

That translates to about 200 new matches a month and includes, according to Malphrus, "veterans who fought for our country and were wounded, cops from other counties and a big-time Catholic priest."

Business may be good, but Malphrus insists he ain't getting rich on these transactions.

"You're allowed to recoup your investment and cover your overheads," he says, pointing to his modest office where a couple of assistants answer phones and help do background checks. "But if you're doing it legitimately, you're not getting rich."

Malphrus also insists that unlike some medical marijuana clubs "where people can walk in and say they have a back problem," people who get referrals through Marimed have to have been seeing a doctor for their condition and have a complete paper trail about their medical situation.

"If not," says Malphrus, "going to one of our doctors is as far as they can get."

Won't Back Down

Malphrus describes his operation as a "screening service" in which patients get matched with the best doctor to suit their needs.

"If a person comes in and they haven't seen a doctor in ages, or they have no insurance, but think of themselves as sick and obviously have a medical condition, we'll do a background check, and try and find any medical records, before we send them to a doctor," he says. "All patients have to be documented, so Marimed can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a problem. We have to verify that they are documented, or there has to be one helluva good reason if they are not, such as a visible or verifiable problem. We do a good and thorough screening process."

Malphrus, who formerly operated two cannabis buyers clubs in Santa Cruz County, says there's a big difference between a referral service like Marimed and a medical marijuana dispensary.

"Once you get a recommendation, you can take it and join any medical marijuana dispensary in the state," he says, "but dispensaries have to operate in the shadows between the laws, and that's the part that's scary from the federal point of view."

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected medical marijuana buyers' clubs, a decision that outlawed medical marijuana exceptions under federal law, but did not touch on medical marijuana laws that have passed in California and eight other states. A bill to provide federal protection to medical marijuana users in those states failed once again in the House last Wednesday--though it did receive 152 supporting votes, 58 more than it got when it was voted down in 1998.

Still, as current medical marijuana laws stand, the party providing the medication runs all the risks, Malphrus explains.

"Prop. 215 allows two individuals to exchange some of the product without it being illegal. Beyond that, it gets dicey," he says, noting that under 215, a person with a valid doctor's recommendation can have up to 6 pounds of "product," and grow a certain number of plants--though even that figure varies by region. He points to Alameda County, which once allowed 144 plants, but then slashed the legal number to 72. Those are the kind of inconsistencies that explain why Malphrus prefers to be on the referral end of things.

So, what could the feds do to him?

"Kiss my ass," he says.

It's a joke, of course, but there's a somber side to his fightin' words, too. His brash attitude, he says, is partially fueled by the fact that after having open heart surgery in 1999, he was told he had only five years to live.

"After that," he says, "I did lots of self-evaluation. I wanted to make the world a better place, so I got involved in this industry, in which I consider myself an expert, an activity that meshes with my personal religious, medical and political beliefs. I have no bad thoughts about medical marijuana, except maybe the cost."

He's quite aware, he says, that he's putting himself at risk by putting his own face on the medical marijuana issue.

"I'm putting myself at risk, yes, but it would be awfully expensive and an awful waste of taxpayers' money for the feds to go after me for this. I'm just a sick individual who's found a way to get involved," he says. "I protect my doctors 100 percent, and for the past few years, I've just been riding on Valerie and Michael Corral's achievements. But they're having their trials and tribulations, and now the political climate warrants my stepping up to the plate, taking the bull by the horns and becoming more public. Unlike Clinton, I definitely inhaled. I intend to keep on sending people to doctors, where they can get legal, legitimate recommendations, until they send me to jail."

Photograph by Stephen Laufer

'We have doctors lined up from Santa Barbara to San Francisco,' says Malphrus.

The Rights Behind the Fight

Valerie Corral hopes they won't be able to. The co-founder of the Santa Cruz-based Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) implies that Malphrus may be onto something in his legal arguments for the rights of physicians when she points outs that five attempts have been made by the feds to overturn doctors' rights to recommend--and each has failed.

"I have faith in the wisdom of the courts," says Corral.

That said, she upbraids the Bush administration for "continuing to speak out about being compassionate conservatives, when none of its actions substantiate those claims."

The government, says Corral, should be providing safe access to medicine and creating a more compassionate society.

"Imposing fear on physicians--and the nation--and making people go on the streets to find their medicine is none of those," she says.

For his part, Malphrus acknowledges that he and everyone else involved with medical marijuana owe a lot to WAMM and the Corrals, "who are compassionate and responsible warriors for this cause."

In other places, he says, things aren't always so rosy.

"In Oakland, if you visit a cannabis buyer's club, you have to worry about getting robbed or hit up on the way out," he says. "Whereas Santa Cruz is the best city and county in the nation for medical marijuana, because the local government is on the citizen's side and does everything it can to help implement Prop. 215."

Malphrus sees the feds' recent attacks--the raid on WAMM's property last fall, as well as the prosecution of San Francisco medicinal marijuana grower Ed Rosenthal--as little more than delay tactics along the way to medical marijuana's inevitable decriminalization. He says it's not just government, but big-business interests that have stymied the growing cultural acceptance of medical marijuana.

"Pharmaceutical companies don't want the feds to legalize a medication that a person can acquire and grow for themselves. They want you dependent on their products, because of their profit factor," he says. "And insurance companies don't want it legalized, because then they'd have to cover the cost of the medical marijuana prescriptions."

Still, Malphrus sees things changing all around him. Canada's recent decision to legalize marijuana for terminally and chronically ill patients makes it the first country to do so.

"The Canadian government was smart enough to realize that there's huge income to be made from taxing medical marijuana, while being able to provide relief for its citizens' ills. So, it got over the embarrassment of negative attitudes towards medical marijuana and onto healing its citizens. That's what we should be doing," he says.

It's only a matter of time, Malphrus believes, before the feds get around to realizing that.

"It would be pretty much a tragedy if they don't. Because if you're using it for medicinal purposes, you're exercising your right to choose whatever medication works for you. Whether it's proven scientific fact, or a psychological aspect, really doesn't matter. If you feel it helps, that's your personal choice," he says, describing his position as "Jeffersonian."


He Fought the Law

For Malphrus, who is diabetic and says he has had severe stomach problems since childhood, it's a political crusade that is also extremely personal.

"No pharmaceuticals have been able to settle my stomach. Marijuana has," says Malphrus, who grew up in Georgia, a state where possession of an ounce earns a mandatory 25 years.

In California, where he's lived since 1991, his pot crusading has led to run-ins with local law enforcement, beginning with a 1995 arrest in Monterey County for growing the crazy lettuce.

"The judge understood I wasn't growing to sell, so he gave me three years unsupervised probation," he says.

Six years later, a Santa Cruz Superior Court judge ordered that almost one pound of the green stuff be returned to Malphrus, thus ending a nine-month-long court case which began when an Airborne Express employee opened a package sent to him by his wife (under the pretenses of an invalid return address) and found 1 ounce of pot, a couple grams of hash and a bottle of hash oil. Sheriffs deputies then searched the couple's residence, where they found and confiscated a pound of bud--despite evidence, says Malphrus, that he had a valid physician's recommendation.

"Technically, I did not commit a crime, since I was on board an airplane when the hash oil was intercepted," he says. But he pled guilty to possession of hash oil and paid a $100 fine rather than see his wife charged with trafficking. To this day, however, he feels he was targeted by the then-DA because of his involvement with the now-defunct Santa Cruz Cannabis Pharmaceuticals, of which he was a director.

These days, Malphrus is particularly pissed at President Bush, who as governor of Texas and a presidential candidate claimed to support states' rights, but is now supporting the crackdown on growers, dispensaries and medical marijuana clubs across the nation.

"Richard Nixon was responsible for scheduling marijuana as a Schedule One drug, and basically we're still going through the prohibition period on this drug," he says.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)--which says the United States currently spends $1.2 billion annually incarcerating drug offenders, and another $6-to-$9 billion tracking them down and arresting them--also believes the U.S. may be moving closer to the end of what it calls "marijuana prohibition," especially in light of the Canadian decision, which it should be noted is still extremely controversial even there.

Until that time, though, Malphrus believes that the feds can still give anyone in the medical marijuana industry grief, if they so choose.

"They'll do whatever they can to shut you down, but hopefully they'll eventually recognize that U.S. voters want this to change," he says. "The old politicians are dying, and the new ones grew up in era of having free sex and smoking pot--and they didn't lose their brain cells doing it. They know the government propaganda is bullshit. So, state by state, the marijuana laws are slowly changing. And they're gonna have to, because that's what people want."

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From the July 30-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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