2.24 p.m. ET (1925 GMT) February 9, 1999
By Catherine Strong, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The government's ban on using marijuana for medicinal purposes will be tested in the nation's capital as a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis stands trial for lighting a joint in a congressman's office.
Renee Emry Wolfe said taking a few puffs of marijuana is the only way she gets relief when her muscles go into spasm from the disease she has had for two decades.
For Mrs. Wolfe, "having a joint is like an asthmatic having a bronchial inhaler," said her attorney, Jeff Orchard.
Last Sept. 15, Mrs. Wolfe lighted a marijuana cigarette in the office of Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., to bring attention to the issue of medical marijuana.
"This patient has run out of patience," Mrs. Wolfe, a 38-year-old mother of three from Ann Arbor, Mich., said in an interview.
"It's an uphill battle that I'm fighting," she said after Superior Court Judge Anita Josey-Herring set an April 26 trial date. "I feel that if I have to talk to every judge in this country to get things changed, I will."
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office here, said prosecutors are pushing the case because "possession of marijuana is against the law" in the District of Columbia.
There is a growing national debate over the use of marijuana for medical reasons.
Voters in six states - California, Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada and Washington - have approved measures in the last few years allowing use of marijuana for medical reasons. Congress barred the District of Columbia from counting of voting results from a similar ballot initiative last fall.
The New England Journal of Medicine has editorialized in favor of medical marijuana and the American Medical Association, altering its policy, voted to urge the National Institutes of Health to support more research on the subject.
Last fall, Mrs. Wolfe went to McCollum's office to protest his resolution that day on the House floor, which said marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medical use. McCollum is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's crime panel.
In his legal argument, Orchard contends that Mrs. Wolfe started to feel tense when McCollum's aides did not want to talk with her and she lighted the marijuana cigarette because she felt her symptoms returning. When she gets attacks, her hands shake and she loses control of her legs.
However, McCollum aide Shannon Gravitte said she spoke to Mrs. Wolfe. Gravitte said the incident seemed like a publicity stunt since Mrs. Wolfe had brought several cameras and a reporter with her.
"She was very calm and almost immediately lit up the joint," Ms. Gravitte said.
Mrs. Wolfe was arrested and spent several hours in jail. Charged with a misdemeanor, she would face up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
Prosecutors contend a medical defense does not apply because there was no immediate danger to Mrs. Wolfe and there was a legal medical alternative available.
"The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that her real purpose was to conduct a protest in the United States Capitol in order to publicize her position regarding the marijuana laws," prosecutors wrote in a legal brief.
Orchard said jail time could hurt her health: "Right now, she does not
always have to be in a wheelchair. If she does 180 days without any (marijuana),
she will always be in a wheelchair."
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