KENNEWICK — Something changed in Tate Andrews after he watched his best friend die while holding his hand.
His friend's death in November came after a long, painful battle with chronic renal failure, and echoed the extended suffering Andrews watched his father go through several years before with cancer.
"He went through every clinical trial, tried every treatment. He hung in there for five years," Andrews said.
The Pasco man recalls his father experiencing pain so bad, he'd grit his teeth until they broke.
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"Even with that, he wouldn't take OxyContin because of the way it made him feel," Andrews said.
He came away from the experiences thinking there had to be a better way for people to manage their pain. Then he learned about medical marijuana.
"I was raised in a conservative Tri-Cities household, and if I had been able to give my dad medical marijuana, I would have," he said. "If I had known."
Andrews' epiphany about using marijuana to treat pain came too late to help his father or his best friend, but he believes he can help other Tri-Citians in the same situation -- regular people who are suffering and may not be aware that state law allows doctors to authorize use of the drug for certain terminal and debilitating illnesses.
He started a company called Medi-Green Solutions LLC that is operating in Kennewick to connect patients with a reputable local doctor to get a valid authorization.
Andrews said he was concerned about patients who were getting authorizations from fly-by-night companies that rent a motel room for a couple days, bring in a doctor from out of town and issue authorizations in batches.
Dr. Adrian Heap, a retired surgeon who is working with Medi-Green, said that because the state's medical marijuana laws are clouded with uncertainty, or because it can be difficult to mentally separate medical use of the drug from recreational use, patients often have difficulty broaching the subject with their doctors.
Patients may find their only recourse to get legal approval to use marijuana to ease symptoms of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma or debilitating pain is through a more-or-less underground system designed for profits, not patients.
"It is very much a hole-in-the-wall business," Heap said.
It's also a system that may attract recreational users and repel patients who are truly in need, he said.
Medi-Green and Heap are working to bring medical marijuana into a setting that's more comfortable and attractive to "responsible patients."
"I got into this business because there is a definite need in the Tri-Cities," Andrews said. "Patients deserve a better option than going into a motel room somebody rents out for a couple of days."
Heap has practiced in the Tri-Cities since 1977, primarily in Richland as a surgeon. After retiring last year, he moved to a smaller office across from Kennewick General Hospital.
His practice there isn't limited to writing medical marijuana authorizations, but he believes marijuana is an option some patients should have.
"Tate and I feel if people have a legitimate medical requirement or indication that the drug might be beneficial to them, it seems reasonable to give them protection for its use," Heap said.
Patients who think they meet the legal criteria must first contact Andrews at Medi-Green and go through a screening, which includes reviewing their medical records to ensure they fit the criteria, Andrews said.
Once they pass the screening, they get an appointment with Heap, he examines them and then offers his opinion about whether they might benefit from the drug, and writes an authorization if all legal and medical criteria are met.
He does not take over management of a patient's illness but tells patients it's important to discuss their use of medical marijuana with their primary care physician or specialist treating their illness.
Medi-Green is still in its infancy, but Andrews said the goal is to talk to law enforcement, city officials and medical associations to ensure everything stays above-board.
In particular, he wants police to come to believe that Medi-Green is a reputable company with reputable patients so they can use the drug safely without fear of reprisal.
But the two men are concerned that state law needs to be changed and clarified to truly protect patients.
Heap said even though the law enacted by voters in 1998 allows him to authorize patients to use medical marijuana, there is no legal way for them to get the drug, with no local jurisdictions permitting dispensaries.
"They are then forced into illegal action to obtain it," he said.
The law also doesn't stop police from arresting someone who possesses or is growing medical marijuana but does offer an affirmative defense if a patient is taken to court.
A bill that would provide arrest protection and create a system for licensing dispensaries and growing collectives is under consideration in the Legislature but has drawn fire from patients, mainly because it includes a provision for a voluntary registry that police could check before conducting warrantless searches or seizures.
"Law enforcement needs clarity," said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, one of the sponsors. "This patient registry created by this bill would provide assurance to the law enforcement community that a person is authorized to use medical marijuana and not just a recreational drug abuser."
But the latest iteration of Senate Bill 5073 voted out of the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee on Wednesday provides arrest protection only to patients who register.
Patient advocates testified at a hearing on the bill that they feared providing their addresses in a registry would make medical marijuana patients targets for police and criminals.
* For information about Medi-Green, call 509-521-5095.