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More MS news articles for July 2003

Pot paradox

July 20, 2003
By Steve Miller
The Washington Times
Las Vegas

Supported by a teetering prosthetic leg held together with brown mailing tape, John Stargel went to Nevada's Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation seeking job training. But the 53-year-old former construction worker was refused assistance after he noted to his case worker that he is a legal smoker of medicinal marijuana, which voters here approved in 2000.

"So one state agency approves my medicine, and another says that if I take my medicine, I can't get any help. Wow," said Mr. Stargel, whose doctor authorized his marijuana use to offset his chronic pain.

The dismissal of Mr. Stargel's case is one more pot paradox that a growing number of states are facing as voters and legislatures from California to Maryland continue to support doctor-prescribed use of the weed, which was outlawed by the federal government in 1937.

They do so despite the insistence from hundreds of elected officials on both sides of the political aisle that smoking marijuana is not medicine. To say otherwise, in some places, is political poison.

At the same time, a cadre of lawmakers both Republican and Democrat, state and federal, buck their respective party platforms to advance acceptance of marijuana's purported medical benefits.

"There are all these people who want to take the politics out of this fight, but politicians shouldn't be playing doctors," says Republican Don Murphy, a former state lawmaker from Maryland who first introduced the state's medicinal marijuana legislation three years ago.

The bill, which after years of dispute received the state legislature's support, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in May. It never went before voters.

"Most elected officials at all levels are content to just toss this issue to the feds and let them handle it," says Mr. Murphy, who now heads the Baltimore County Republican Party.

Federal officials continue to enforce marijuana's ban, even in states that have legalized it, citing the 1937 law that maintains marijuana has no medical value and lists it as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, LSD and various amphetamine variants. They specifically target for arrest patients with prescribed marijauna and medicinal pot distributors, as well as pot paraphernalia purveyors.

"The medical establishment is not in favor of marijuana as medicine," says Tom Riley, spokesman for White House drug policy director John Walters. "And it is not like there is this drug being kept from sick people. It is not medicine."

Dr. Andrea Barthwell, President Bush's appointee as deputy director for demand reduction in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, notes that voters are voting their emotions when asked to approve medicinal marijuana.

"They aren't being told the whole truth," says Dr. Barthwell, who was confirmed last year with bipartisan support. "These voters are being propagandized."

Besides, she notes, "we recognize that the voters and the states have the right to vote on policy, but federal law trumps them."

Last week, the Bush administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let federal authorities revoke federal prescription licenses from California doctors who tell patients marijuana will help them.

Advocates of medicinal marijuana say such efforts undermine voters' wishes and hinder any hope that the medical cognoscenti in the United States will agree that pot can be good for what ails you.

Proponents are convinced that marijuana, a psychoactive plant that stimulates certain pleasure centers of the brain, can ease the pain of people battling the wasting of AIDS, the nausea of chemotherapy, the tremors of multiple sclerosis and the eye pressure brought about by glaucoma.

Nine states allow medicinal marijuana, seven based on the wish of voters, two based on the move of state lawmakers.

A prominent Nevada Republican acknowledges that, in the solitude of the voting booth, he voted for medicinal marijuana in 2000: "But I would deny it if anyone ever asked me," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Perhaps most revealing are the players who support pot as medication.

"The politics are what makes this so compelling," says Robert DuPont, White House drug chief under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford.

"If it were just a left-versus-right issue, it would simply be sorted out on a partisan basis and that would be it. But a lot of the left is attracted to the legalization issue, and people on the right are attracted to the libertarian argument."

No consensus

Pot foes on both sides of the political aisle castigate any of their own who support medicinal marijuana.

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, is one of a few who each session tries always unsuccessfully to advance such legislation.

His annual States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, a bill that would call off the feds from state pot initiatives, was introduced with the backing of 16 Democrats and two Republicans Ron Paul of Texas and Dana Rohrabacher of California will again languish in committee.

Republicans, in particular, are the party that has built its platform on law and order, and would never give the nod to legalizing the use of marijuana as a controlled substance.

"These so-called Republicans [who support medicinal marijuana laws] are really Libertarians," asserts state Rep. Ron Godbey, a New Mexico Republican. "Libertarians have never had a real platform other than to have limited government, so this is an issue they can grab on to."

He calls pot advocates "druggies," and is prepared to take his fight against the weed anywhere.

"It can be a political issue, it will be a political issue," says Mr. Godbey, a former criminal defense lawyer. "And we will make it one."

Teddy Hiteman is not a Libertarian, but a Republican.

She says so as she sits on an overstuffed couch in the $350,000, six-bedroom home she and her husband, Richard, share in suburban Henderson, Nev., a conservative enclave where gentrification is religion.

"Medicinal pot has been a godsend," she says, using it to treat the multiple sclerosis she has battled since 1992

"I never ever thought I would support pot at all," said the 49-year-old mother of four, a petite, blonde former aerobics instructor. She started smoking four years ago, just before she voted for Mr. Bush and in favor of medicinal pot on the same ballot.

"I wish we had more conservatives who would understand," she says.

There are many, and one of them was elected by voters just across the Mohave Desert, in Orange County, Calif., an area very similar in demographic and appearance to Henderson.

Mr. Rohrabacher, who hails from California's conservative Orange County, also denies any Libertarian affiliation. He favors drug testing in schools, placing him far from such a tag.

He and Texas Republican Ron Paul stand alone officially in support of medicinal pot.

"I have no doubt that if there were a secret ballot on this, a lot of Republicans would vote along with Barney Frank," he says, referring to the Massachusetts Democrat who has long lobbied for marijuana reform, medicinal and otherwise.

"Drug legislation has always been the exception to the [state´s rights] rule," says Mr. Rohrabacher. Marijuana is taboo in the party's ranks, he says, "even though medicinal pot is the most defensible of all stances on drugs."

Part of the culture

Mr. Stargel, the amputee construction worker in Las Vegas, is appealing his case. His state-sanctioned medical use of pot should not exclude him from other state services, he says.

"The state says it is legal, as long as a doctor prescribes it," he says, looking at his official medicinal marijuana card, which looks astoundingly like a driver's license. "So this is what the voters' will means to this state?"

Long associated in many circles with stringy-haired hippies toting colorful bongs and red-eyed irresponsibility, pot is now a fixture in American culture.

Surveys estimate that 37 percent of Americans aged 12 and older have smoked pot at least once in their lifetimes. Seventy percent, in repeated polls, approve of medicinal use of the weed.

And in addition to the approved medical status of pot in nine states, 13 states no longer make a habit of putting people in jail for smoking a joint, including Nebraska and Mississippi.

"There is still no agreement about the benevolence of marijuana, though," says Wayne Kramer, who played guitar for Detroit's revolutionary MC5. "And people still don't know what to think about it."

The weed was first outlawed in response to its prevalence among post-World War I jazz musicians and artists, who smoked "muggles," in the day's parlance. The '60s saw pot gain a higher profile with the same counterculture movement that made rock music a cultural icon.

Transcending social favor, though, is the disputed medical value of the illicit herb.

Both sides tout extensive studies of the medical merits of the weed. In one corner, the pro-medicinal lobby trots out a pivotal, government commissioned study by the Institute of Medicine's 1999 report on medical marijuana that found "a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs."

Prohibitionists cite other government-funded reports explicitly contradicting that finding and espouse a hard line against marijuana that never wavers.

Prosecutors nationwide were alerted in November that "no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana," in a letter from Scott Burns of the White House Drug Policy office. He asserted that marijuana is addictive, linked to violence, and that "marijuana is not a medicine."

The White House and its Justice Department, both Democrat and Republican, have battled with medicinal proponents for years. Dr. Barthwell calls medicinal pot a "medieval form of medicine," and proponents as "snake-oil salesmen."

Meanwhile, her boss has vacillated on medicinal marijuana.

On the presidential campaign trail in 1999, Mr. Bush said, "I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose," in response to a reporter's question.

There is no room in his administration now for medicinal pot, and the anti-medicinal crusade of his drug policy chief, John Walters, is becoming legendary.

Just a ruse

Perhaps the best national face of the anti-pot cadre is not the podium-pounding Mr. Walters or the prohibitionist elders in Congress, but a former undercover cop who lives right here in Las Vegas.

Many people have seen Todd Raybuck, 34, a narcotics detective for the Las Vegas Police Department, giving his reasoned and sincere disdain for all drugs in public forums, from "Oprah" to CNN's "Crossfire."

Camera-ready and sound-bite smart, Detective Raybuck does away with the anti-weed fervor in favor of his quiet, assured statements.

"The people who are sick are being made into martyrs by these pro-marijuana groups," he says. "The real goal of groups like [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] and [Marijuana Policy Project] is to legalize pot, not to provide it just for sick people."

The pro-pot groups have vowed for years to make marijuana legal, but still deny Detective Raybuck's accusation.

"Our support for medicinal marijuana has always been separate from recreational," says Keith Stroup, executive director of the District-based NORML. "We do our best to keep them separate."

Detective Raybuck is aware of the popular voter sentiment in favor of medicinal pot, which is giving, even now, he and his fellow pot-fighters a tough time even getting elected officials on their side.

"They are all worried about getting re-elected, and it is hard to get re-elected when you oppose something that 70 percent of the people are shown to favor," says Detective Raybuck, who is decidedly Republican.

A fiery partisan, Nevada state Assembly member Chris Giunchigliani, a leading architect of Nevada's medicinal law, agreed: The conflict is cultural dressed up in the cloak of politics.

"It's as if it's a battle between those who enjoy a good glass of Chardonnay and people who want to see a new medicine on the market," the lawmaker said. "It really is not a partisan issue at all."

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