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Medical marijuana: Compassionate or a trap for users?

http://www.dailytimesonline.com/news/stories/20030615/localnews/486758.html

Sunday, June 15, 2003
By Deborah Gates
Daily Times Staff Writer
Salisbury

A woman stands by her drug dealer when she stumbles to his door to buy marijuana.

She suffers from multiple sclerosis and is in excruciating pain. The dealer sells her the drug for the pain. Their bond, though knotted by years of supply and demand, is built on trust.

Ironically, a new law intended to protect people who use marijuana as medicine makes the woman uneasy.

The law, signed last month by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, imposes a maximum $100 fine for medical marijuana users. The Darrell Putman law relaxes the current state penalty for marijuana possession -- up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

But the woman is cynical of a government offer that could bait her into the open and trap her dealer.

"I worry about him," she said, unwilling to share her identity. "What about those people who start smoking out in the open? Suppose you're caught. What are you going to do, go tell where you got it?"

Dr. Dan Morhaim, a delegate from Baltimore County, introduced the bill in the Maryland House of Delegates. Political supporters argue that the bill is a "compassionate use act" that lessens penalties and provides seriously ill patients relief.

"I'm not buying it," said the woman. "I'm not talking to the law or a doctor."

A law of compassion

Supporters point to evidence that marijuana eases pain from chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis. For years, countless testimonies of the herb's ability to reduce nausea from chemotherapy have been offered by medical experts and users.

Sen. Richard Colburn, R-37-Dorchester, said his own "brush with death" influenced his support of the bill.

"I am a cancer survivor, and certainly have been down that road," said Colburn, who underwent a procedure for prostate cancer in May 2000.

Colburn's treatment didn't include chemotherapy. He didn't smoke marijuana, though severe pain led doctors to prescribe morphine, he said.

"Doctors can prescribe much more dangerous drugs than marijuana," he said. "I was given morphine. You squeeze the trigger when you feel the need."

The woman using marijuana was diagnosed with MS nearly 15 years ago.

"I realized something was wrong when I had double vision," she recalled.

Achy joints and partial blindness soon followed -- then facial pain and bouts of irritability and memory loss.

"I was on steroids, all kinds of medicine," she said.

She's had success with a new drug called Avonex, which she injects weekly to ward off seizures.

Marijuana dulls the pain.

"The pain is always there. I live with it," she said. "I smoke (marijuana) every chance I get. It makes the aching level off."

Some critics argue that relaxed marijuana laws can lead to increased drug abuse. But Colburn, who describes himself as conservative, disagrees.

"It is an issue about compassion and the bill clearly makes the distinction between drug users and people's medical purposes," he said.

The bill mirrors laws in nine states that relaxed penalties for medical marijuana users, Colburn said. More than 20 states have taken lesser measures, he said.

"It is not the intention that anybody can illegally be taking drugs," he said. "Doctors and families should decide how to treat a patient. Who am I to say (if patients should smoke) in the last days of their lives?"

Still an illegal drug

Colburn said he is proud of his viewpoint.

"I am a conservative Republican and I have a human side, too," he said. "It does defy the stereotype. It shows that we Republicans who are very conservative have a compassionate side, a human side like everyone else."

But R. Hunter Nelms, sheriff for Wicomico County, said the law raises enforcement issues.

"If the governor in his wisdom signed this for the people as another medical resource, I hope means are found whereby a person can obtain (marijuana) in a legal fashion and be allowed to use it," he said.

Enforcement guidelines likely will be handed down from the Attorney General's office, Nelms said.

"I've not seen any information on it and I don't know the particulars," he said. "It's my guess we'll consult with the state's attorney and seek guidance on how to handle the situation."

An appeals court judge could set the precedent for procedures after a specific case is presented.

"Usually, with a law this unique, an appeals court will set procedures on how this will be done and it could take months, even years to settle out," he said.

A drug of choice

Marijuana accounts for most drug arrests in Wicomico County, Nelms said. To date, no suspects have claimed a medical excuse, he said.

"More people possess marijuana, then crack," he said. "Generally it is a couple of joints for personal use, and generally, we'll charge them."

Drug offenders account for the majority of inmates in the state prison system, but an exact number of marijuana offenders is unclear, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Of 24,000 prisoners statewide, 24 percent are serving time on drug charges, Vernarelli said. At the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, 20 percent of the 3,000-inmate population are drug offenders, he said.

By comparison, murder convictions make up 15 percent of the state's prison population, robbery accounts for 16 percent and 17 percent of prisoners are being held on assault charges, Vernarelli said.

"Drugs are always the No. 1 offense," he said.

Joe Hopwood, a retired Salisbury farmer, said he hopes the law leads to a new market for regional farmers. Hopwood unsuccessfully lobbied the General Assembly in 1997 for the use of marijuana in animal feed and pulp products, he said.

"Stalks and leaves make excellent paper, and cooking oil and chicken and hog feed can be made from seeds," he said.

Unlike decades ago, much of the marijuana smoked today in the United States is grown domestically, Hopwood said.

"Farmers and poultry growers could benefit," he said. "We're wasting a good possibility."
 

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