The Kindness of Strangers
The tale of the Colorado Compassion Club begins with a couple of antagonistic tree trimmers. As the story goes, in the summer of 2004, a Denver resident, whom we shall call Frank, told a few tree trimmers he would pay for their services in marijuana. The trimmers knew Frank was good for it. All they had to do was look into his house to spot his pot – hundreds and hundreds of plants.
When the tree trimmers' work was complete, however, Frank apparently failed to pay up. So the trimmers took matters into their own hands, namely making off with some of Frank's marijuana plants. Incensed, Frank called the cops, which, in hindsight, might not have been the best decision. When police officers arrived at Frank's home, they were less interested in his tale of mischievous tree trimmers than they were in the fact that he had hundreds of pot plants growing all over his crib.
When the cops tried to take the plants, Frank told them they'd have to go through the Drug Enforcement Agency. Bad idea number two. Frank ended up with federal agents crawling all over his cannabis arboretum.
To lessen the heat, Frank told the authorities he'd rat out the folks who'd helped him grow his sizable marijuana garden. Frank's admissions led North Metro Drug Task Force officers and federal drug agents to the door of a low-lying red-brick bungalow in a neighborhood of low-lying red-brick bungalows in east Denver at 10:30 p.m. on June 1, 2004. The home belonged to Thomas and Larisa Lawrence. Thomas is just over six feet, with light-blue eyes, brown hair tied in a ponytail and a soul patch plummeting from his lower lip. Larisa is small and pretty, with straight brown hair. At the time, both were inside the house celebrating Thomas' grandmother's 72nd birthday.
The officers asked Thomas and Larisa if they could search the premises. What happened next is in dispute.
Larisa says she asked to see a search warrant. She says the officers responded that they didn't need one because of the Patriot Act, but that they would be happy to get one, provided that Thomas, Larisa and all their guests didn't mind being locked out of the house for six hours while they whipped one up.
Jeff Dorschner, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, unequivocally denies such a conversation ever took place. He says Thomas and Larisa must have given the officers permission to search the premises.
Whatever the circumstances, the officers searched the house. The investigation turned up 84 young pot plants in the basement, 12 ounces of loose marijuana and six pounds of ice in the freezer that contained marijuana plant matter.
It appeared that Thomas and Larisa were unusually over-achieving stoners, but that wasn't the case. Thanks to a combination of football injuries and a degenerative spinal condition, Thomas suffers from migraines and back pain. He can't stand prescription narcotics, especially since they leave him too doped up to run his home-improvement business. The only thing that seems to help is marijuana, which dulls his pain and thins his blood, leading to fewer migraines. The medicine, as Thomas and Larisa call it, works so well that the two moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Colorado in 2001 because of the Centennial State's more lenient medical marijuana laws.
The year before, Colorado passed Amendment 20, which allows people to become licensed to use marijuana to alleviate debilitating conditions including cancer, AIDS, severe pain and seizures. The law allows a licensed marijuana patient to usually possess no more than six marijuana plants and two ounces of usable marijuana – much less than what the authorities found in Thomas and Larisa's house.
But Thomas wasn't just growing for himself, he was providing for other patients. Word had gotten around that Thomas was growing some good medicine, and many patients specified Thomas as their state-certified caregiver. Frank had been one of Thomas' patients; albeit one with whom Thomas had severed all ties because of a disagreement long before the cops came knocking on his door. At the time of the raid, Thomas estimates he was providing medicine for 11 licensed patients and about 20 more who were in the process of getting licensed – more than enough, he says, to legally justify his ganja garden.
The feds didn't see it that way. After mulling about the property for several hours, they confiscated all the marijuana, plus lights, heaters and books used in the operation. They allowed Thomas to keep his collection of one-of-a-kind bongs and roach clips. Thanks to the raid, Thomas and Larisa lost between $5,000 and $10,000 worth of property and gained a reputation around the neighborhood for being the focus of a federal drug bust. While Thomas and Larisa have not been charged with any crime, their property remains confiscated.
Whatever the officers hoped to gain from the raid, they didn't stop Thomas and Larisa from growing their medicine. Instead they caused these Curies of cannabis to go official – by starting the Colorado Compassion Club.
"We are not trying to say, 'How can we grow as much pot as we can,'" says Thomas. "We are trying to make sure patients and caregivers have some access to medicine, and make it as cost-effective as possible."
Today there are 587 people licensed to use medical marijuana in Colorado – 32 in Boulder – but the law doesn't specify how they are supposed to get the pot. The most obvious ways of doing so seem to be scoring a dime bag in Centennial Park or spending hundreds of dollars and six months growing pot from seed in a closet. But now, through Thomas and Larisa's Colorado Compassion Club, a rapidly growing consortium of about 70 patients and caregivers, there's another option.
Sorry, run-of-the-mill stoners: Prospective Colorado Compassion Club members need to be either licensed marijuana patients or in the process of obtaining a license. Thomas, Larisa or other caregivers in the club work with club patients, discussing their conditions and what type and dose of marijuana might be appropriate. Everything is recorded on extremely detailed paperwork – so if there's ever another raid, Thomas and Larisa will have proof they're not drug lords. The club provides members from Carson City to Grand Lake with medicine or helps them build and maintain their own grow rooms. It's all based on donations, and the club is hoping to get nonprofit status. If a member can't pay in cash, they volunteer time helping the club produce medicine, or donate clippings from their own plants, if they grow their own.
Thomas and Larisa's bungalow is the club's center of operations, a sort of communal hospital-cum-greenhouse-cum-pharmacy. Club members stop over all the time to help out, chill out or toke up. The living room feels like a rainforest, filled with large plants, ceremonial masks, roaming cats and dogs and an unmistakable aroma in the air. But the important greenery is downstairs, in a small room with bare white walls. This is where the magic happens.
"I think the love and care we put into the plants produces a different quality of medicine. You have to love the plant," says Thomas, as he stands in the basement room. Around his feet spreads a thick carpet of young marijuana plants, each labeled by type: Chocolate Chunk, Ultimate Indica, Chronic Maple Leaf, Humboldt Snow, G13, White Lightning – Thomas cracks up in the middle of listing the varieties – Bubblegum, Bubble Funk, Shiskaberry, Dutch Treat. A fan blows gently through the leaves and a large circular metal grow light hangs overhead, traveling slowly back and forth on a motorized track attached to the ceiling. There's a stereo in the corner – some volunteers like to play rock for the plants; Thomas prefers hip-hop.
In the room's closet, Thomas runs his genetics lab. Here, tiny plant clippings grow in small containers, all part of Thomas' experiments in cloning and cross-breeding cannabis to produce varieties with specific medicinal qualities – some to increase hunger, some to dull pain, some to ease muscle spasms.
When the plants are large enough, Thomas will move them to a large greenhouse in the backyard. There they will grow for most of the summer; when they're harvested, they'll probably be over 6 feet tall. Neighbors warn their kids to stay away from the unusual foliage poking over the fence.
Along with marijuana and hash for smoking, the club produces brownies, muffins and fudge, all made with a specific amount of cannabis, so patients can take regular dosages ("Take two pot brownies and call me in the morning"). While most tokers just use cannabis flowers, the Colorado Compassion Club also harvests the plant's leaves, which offer many of the same medicinal qualities with fewer of the intoxicating side effects. So if you don't feel like smoking, there's a myriad of other ways to take your medicine: teas, tinctures, topical rubs, lotions, cooking oils, creams, compresses and even hard candy.
"It doesn't have to be about sitting around and taking bong hits," says Larisa. "Though it is your right to do so."
If Thomas is the mad scientist in the basement, Larisa is Mother Theresa in the living room. She prefers working with patients, finding out how to best meet their needs, helping them cope. She says she's watched many people heal before her eyes.
Busted – Again
For Thomas and Larisa, running the Colorado Compassion Club is a full-time job – especially since they aren't about to receive much support from the local authorities.
Thomas learned this the hard way in January. He was driving home one evening when a cop pulled him over. The officer found an ounce of "Kahuna Salad" marijuana and two pipes in the glove compartment. Since Thomas didn't have his caregiver license on him, the cops were somewhat skeptical when he told them it was medicine.
Once again, Thomas' medicine was taken by the Man – but this time, he was determined to get it back. In February, Thomas walked into the police station with a court property disposition for his weed and his pipes. The police laughed in his face. They said his disposition was fake, that he was trying to steal illicit drugs from the cops. Not even a call from the city attorney's office could sway the officers. There was no way the Denver police were going to start handing out Mary Jane to needy citizens.
A month later, on March 4, Thomas returned to the police station, armed with a court order, his lawyer and the press. He picked up the phone in the station lobby and said, "Hi, I need to pick up some property."
This time the police were more cooperative. Thomas became the first person ever to receive drugs from the Denver police.
"What happened was a victory for all patients and caregivers in Colorado. It was a victory for everyone who voted to get the law enabled," says Thomas. The only problem with the returned medicine, Thomas told a journalist at the scene, was "It's a little dryer than I'd like."
Thomas and Larisa have big plans for the Colorado Compassion Club. Both are taking naturopath courses, and talk about creating a wellness center for the club where members will have access to health spas and even hospice rooms. Reaching that goal won't be easy, especially since the Colorado Compassion Club probably hasn't seen the last of its run-ins with the authorities.
One possible reason federal attorneys have yet to charge Thomas and Larissa for the 83 plants they found in their house last year could be because they are waiting for an upcoming decision in the Supreme Court case, Ashcroft vs. Raich, which will decide on the federal government's ability to supercede state medical marijuana laws. If the court rules in the fed's favor, people like Thomas and Larisa could be looking at federal prosecution – maybe even prison time.
Thomas isn't too worried. He doesn't expect to be thrown in the clink for growing some supreme weed.
"Here in Denver, I don't see them being able to convict me under a jury of my peers," he says, relaxing on his living room couch, while behind him a few visiting club members sit around the kitchen table, munching take-out fried chicken and packing a glass bong. "All I am trying to do is help people who can't help themselves."