Thursday, October 15, 2009
Marijuana Debate has Many Sides
Medical marijuana debate has multiple dimensions: medical, political,
By Derek Spellman
Published October 10, 2009 07:50 pm
Linda Yelvington rattles off her list of ailments: Severe scoliosis. A
prosthetic hip. Cervical degenerative disc disease. DeQuerin's
syndrome in both wrists. Arthritis. Breathing problems from diminished
lung capacity because of scoliosis.
The 54-year-old woman then rattles off a list of painkillers she has
taken for her health problems.
"None of them are working right," Yelvington said of the legal
drugs, listing some of their side effects.
It has been several months since she has taken her preferred painkiller
— marijuana — because it's not legal in Missouri.
She contends it works just as well, if not better, with fewer side
effects. Yelvington, who started taking marijuana years ago, is
well-versed in studies about marijuana's medicinal use.
Asked if the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical use is personal
or political for her, she replied, "I think it's a compassion
Activists, meanwhile, are gathering support for a statewide initiative
that would ask Missouri voters to approve medical marijuana.
The forthcoming debate will likely have two dimensions — one medical
and political. Both will be personal.
On the medical debate, both sides cite research and a roster of
supporters to back their claims.
A local physician said a lot depends on whether the discussion is about
someone who is terminally ill and in agony or whether it is about
someone who will have to deal with the long-term effects of using the
"Marijuana is not harmless," added Matthew Miller, a medical
oncologist from Freeman Health System.
The medical debate is also attended by a political debate about whether
the marijuana issue is an act of compassion for the dying, or a Trojan
horse for outright legalization of recreational use of the drug.
Yelvington, a member of the Joplin chapter of the National Organization
to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), acknowledged that she would likely
advocate for the outright legalization of marijuana even if she
didn't have medical problems. She also acknowledged that the debates
over medical marijuana and outright legalization overlap.
Still, she and a number of activists said they believe the two issues
can be separated to an extent. They also reject claims that one
automatically leads to the other.
But there are skeptics.
The Joplin area gained a measure of notoriety in recent years for
marijuana activism. Joplin has been host to the Cannabis Revival and
already seen one push to put a question to voters about lessening
penalties for possession of the drug. That petition did not get the
required number of signatures for the ballot.
Missouri Southern State University recently ranked No. 20 on High Times
magazine's list of the top 20 colleges for marijuana activism. And
earlier this year, the then-mayor of Cliff Village, south of Joplin,
claimed that his board of trustees had passed a "symbolic"
ordinance that would have legalized the drug inside the village for
medical use, although a number of residents later disputed whether that
ordinance was ever actually passed.
Yelvington, who moved to Goodman from Kentucky in March, said she first
experimented with marijuana decades ago, as many others did.
"I didn't equate it with pain relief at the time," she said,
although in later years she said she discovered it worked better for her
as an antiphlegmatic and for curbing depression and muscle spasms.
But now that she is lives in Southwest Missouri, she turns to legal
"I have to, because I can't have medical marijuana in
Joplin," she said.
Yelvington said she has family in Missouri and she would like to stay,
but she has not ruled out moving to California, Colorado or New Mexico,
which have medical marijuana laws in place. Ten other states also allow
some form of medical marijuana, according to NORML.
But even in states that have legalized medical marijuana, it is still
technically illegal for doctors to prescribe their patients marijuana
under federal law, according to Keith Stroup, the legal counsel and
founder of NORML. Instead, in those states, patients must have proof
that doctors "recommend" marijuana for their patients.
But the patient is still "left to your own imagination" in how
they go about obtaining the marijuana, Stroup said.
A few states allow the operation of not-for-profit
"dispensaries" that act as cooperatives to supply patients, but
otherwise a patient either must grow the plant themselves, have a
designated caregiver cultivate the plant or obtain it on the black
market, Stroup said.
Even patients in those 13 states who use medical marijuana are still
violating federal law, Stroup said. The practical effect, though, is one
of sparing the patients from penalties under local and state laws, which
spares them from federal investigation. More than 99 percent of
marijuana cases are handled on the state and local level, he said.
"They never go after individual patients," Stroup said of
Meanwhile, activists in Missouri are eyeing 2012 as the time for a
statewide ballot issue about medical marijuana, said Kelly Maddy,
president of the Joplin NORML chapter.
"We are still in the planning stages for that."
Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland said he will follow the laws, but he
does harbor reservations about legalization of marijuana for medical
Copeland has said that in his 30 years of experience in law enforcement
he had "never seen a positive side of marijuana," and that the
substance usually acts as a gateway drug that leads people to experiment
with other drugs.
Copeland also voiced fears that legalizing marijuana, even for medical
purposes, would increase the overall availability of the drug.
"We see prescription medication abused now," Copeland said.
Even if medical patients grow their own crop, he said, it would be
accessible to children or to thieves who would try to steal it.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has gone so far as to label the
movement to legalize marijuana for medical use a "red herring"
and a "tactical maneuver in an overall strategy to completely
legalize all drugs," according to the agency's Web site.
A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter, saying it was a
"policy" question that needed to be directed to the Department
of Justice. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined comment.
Maddy rejected characterizations of medical marijuana as a "sneaky
step towards complete legalization. "
When marijuana is authorized for medical use, those regulations often
have strict guidelines and safeguards.
"When that happens I usually ask them (skeptics), `Exactly how
does allowing seriously ill patients to use marijuana lead to the end of
the prohibition of marijuana for recreational use?'" Maddy said.
Stroup, of the national NORML organization, said his group opposes
people pretending to be sick so they can obtain marijuana.
Yet activists also acknowledged that a look at how marijuana affects
medical patients could lead to "attitudinal changes" about the
drug as a whole, Stroup said.
Whether marijuana is benign is another debate.
Advocates like Maddy cite support from organizations such as the
American College of Physicians, American Public Health Association,
American Nurses Association, American Academy of HIV Medicine, and the
state medical societies of New York, California and Rhode Island.
They point to research suggesting marijuana has a number of clinical
applications, including relief of pain, nausea, spasticity, glaucoma and
movement disorders. They also say it can also be a powerful appetite
stimulant, particularly for patients suffering from HIV or cancer.
Opponents noted that those conditions can be treated by other medicines
that are already available and tested. They also cite studies showing
marijuana as the cause of health problems including cancer, respiratory
problems, a weakened immune system, loss of motor skills and an
increased heart rate.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy cites an April 2006 advisory
from the Food and Drug Administration that concluded: "No sound
scientific studies have supported medical use of smoked marijuana for
treatment in the United States, and no animal or human data support the
safety or efficacy of smoked marijuana for general medical use."
The office cites research from the Institute of Medicine and the lack of
support for medical marijuana by the American Medical Association, the
National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the National
Multiple Sclerosis Society. They also note concerns that any temporary
positive effects would be outstripped by long-term deleterious ones.
Miller, the Freeman oncologist, said he has had a few patients who have
told him they used marijuana, although it is difficult to gauge its
effectiveness because patients are unlikely to be forthcoming about the
extent of using an illicit drug, he added. For some patients, for
example, it might have helped with curbing nausea, although Miller said
there also are legal drugs on the market to treat that.
Miller also noted concerns about the purity of smoked marijuana. Unlike
a pill, where the ingredients and the exact amount of those ingredients
are known beforehand, the same cannot be said for a marijuana cigarette.
"My concern would be the marijuana is potentially impure,"
His personal opinion, he said, is that if the drug were legal and used
to palliate a patient who is "obviously, actively dying" and in
great pain, he would have no problem with that.
But that scenario is a far cry from someone who is going to live and
will have to contend with the adverse effects of the drug, he said.
Marijuana can inflict great harm, he said.
Yelvington, for her part, still swears by marijuana.
In the meantime, she wears a marijuana leaf pin as something of a
conversation starter. She believes the public will embrace medical
marijuana once people are aware of the science behind it.
"Hopefully, people will ask me about it," she said of the pin.
"Simply put, the smoked form of marijuana is not considered modern
medicine." — Statement from the Office of National Drug Control
http://www.joplingl obe.com/local/ local_story_ 283195046. html