At least 160 Alaskans are using marijuana to treat medical problems.
That's how many people have signed up on the state's medical marijuana registry in the year since the registry was created, a state health official said.
``We were actually expecting somewhere between 150 and 200,'' said Al Zangri, chief of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics. ``It's certainly within the range that we were anticipating.''
In November 1998, Alaskans voted to make it legal to use marijuana for medical purposes.
In spring of 1999 the Legislature amended the voter-approved law to require users to sign up on a state registry and provide a doctor's recommendation.
Alaskans for Medical Rights, which supported the original initiative, opposed the bill requiring mandatory registration. The group instead advocated a voluntary registry.
But despite those initial concerns, the organization has encouraged patients to comply with the law. David Finkelstein of Alaskans for Medical Rights said the registry system seems to be working relatively well.
The registry is required by the law to be confidential, with information released only in limited cases to peace officers and authorized employees of local and state law enforcement agencies.
Jim Welch of Eagle River, who uses marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis spasms, said the process of registering was relatively simple. His doctor agreed to make the recommendation and the state agency was ``nothing but accommodating and easy to work with,'' he said.
He had to overcome his own initial reluctance to register, however.
``I had some real hesitation at the beginning because I didn't like the idea of having to essentially formally declare that I was committing a federal crime,'' he said.
He eventually decided that signing up on the registry wouldn't in itself prove he's used the drug, which is still illegal under federal law. ``They have bigger fish to fry, I'm sure,'' he added.
Welch said he also agreed to sign up because of his respect for Finkelstein, who has encouraged patients to do so.
Others have refused to register. Bill Kozlowski of Juneau has hemophilia and uses marijuana to control pain caused by internal bleeding. He hasn't signed up and said he knows others who haven't either.
``I really believe that it's still too shady between the federal government and the state government for me to go put my name on a government list,'' Kozlowski said. ``I know it sounds paranoid, but the reality is there's still a drug war.''
Finkelstein said he receives a few inquiries a week about the law. ``Mostly, it's just helping people understand how the law works, what the steps are,'' he said.
He doesn't hear back from most of the people who've contacted him, which he takes as a sign that they aren't having too many problems with the system.
Occasionally, he said, he receives complaints from people that their condition doesn't qualify for treatment with marijuana under the law. Under the law a patient must have a debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or an illness that produces severe pain, nausea, seizures, muscle spasms or wasting.
People can petition to have conditions added to the list, but no one has done that so far, state official Zangri said.
The bill requiring registration was sponsored by state Sen. Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican. Leman's office hasn't heard any complaints about how the registry is working, said aide Mike Pauley. ``As far as we know, things are working well,'' he said.
Zangri said he's able to provide little information from the registry because of confidentiality requirements. But he said in general applications are coming from all parts of the state, and there is no one doctor who seems to be writing most of the recommendations.
Patients must provide a recommendation from a doctor, a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant to qualify.
Finkelstein said people often ask him for names of doctors who are willing to recommend the drug. He won't do that. Alaska is too small a state, and many of its doctors already have more patients than they can handle. If he made referrals, ``pretty soon they're the medical marijuana doctor and people are lining up.''
``The advice I give patients is your best bet is to go to general practitioners,'' he said. Specialists seem less likely to recommend marijuana, he said.
Some doctors definitely won't make the recommendation, Finkelstein said, including federal public health doctors such as those providing care to Alaska Natives.
Patients don't seem to have too much difficulty obtaining the drug, he said.
``I don't quiz people very much on that part of it,'' Finkelstein said. ``I'd say the majority of them seem to be able to get their hands on it, or can grow it.''
Alaska's law allows a registered patient to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in usable form and six plants, of which only three can be flowering at one time. Buying and selling the drug, however, is still illegal.