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More MS news articles for March 2003

When Marijuana Helps the Sick

Mar 3, 2003
Feb 20, 2003
Cristina Hernández - Tierramérica*
San Francisco, (IPS)

Soft music and tall tables along the walls create a relaxed atmosphere at the Love Shack. The customers are calmly engaged in conversation. It could be just about any café, if it weren't for the fact that the tea, cigarettes and cakes served here are made with marijuana.

Love Shack is one of the more than 30 medicinal marijuana clubs in the San Francisco Bay area, in the western U.S. state of California.

It has some 100 people on its roster of patients and offers marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in 10 different forms, with prices ranging from 15 dollars per gram to 325 dollars for 28 grams.

The club's managers, Damian D. and Chris M., as they opt to identify themselves, told Tierramérica that their objective is to provide a safe place for the patients so that they do not have to turn to the streets to obtain marijuana.

To gain access to clubs like this and to avoid arrest for drug possession, each customer has to have an identification card from the Public Health Department, which requires, among other things, a certified medical history and a prescription for marijuana consumption.

California is one of eight U.S. states with laws that permit the use of the plant for medical purposes. In 1996, California's Compassionate Use Act legalised the possession, use and growing of marijuana for medicinal use.

Since then, however, there has been a constant battle between the state and federal legal jurisdictions over the matter.

The Federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits the cultivation and consumption of marijuana. The White House and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) maintain that Cannabis sativa is a dangerous substance due to its toxic components and psychotropic properties, and that there is no rigorous scientific proof of its medicinal value.

Despite the looming danger of being charged with a federal crime (with penalties ranging from monetary fines to life imprisonment), 30,000 Californians turn to marijuana to alleviate pain or nausea associated with illness, reports the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The plant, whose active chemical compound is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), provides relief from the side effects of some treatments for cancer and HIV/AIDS, and serves as a treatment for glaucoma, as well as alleviating the pain of arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

According to the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medicinal Marijuana (WAMM), whose members are mostly chronically ill and grow marijuana to distribute it to others like them, free of cost, the "weed" mitigates nausea, epileptic seizures, insomnia, lack of appetite and muscular atrophy.

"This patient can use four a five cigarettes a day, which cost 400 dollars a month," says Jack, member of the marijuana club Helping Hands Centre, pointing out a man who has multiple sclerosis and suffers constant tremors.

According to Jack, by controlling the shaking, the patient achieves a sense of well being, allowing him to fight off depression and dedicate himself to his passion: painting.

But marijuana consumption can have side effects, admit its defenders.

A marijuana user might feel drugged, lack the ability to concentrate and experience unfounded fears, according to Ricardo Alvarez, director of the Clínica de la Esperanza, at the Mission Neighbourhood health centre. The clinic, whose clientele is mostly Latino, provides HIV/AIDS-related medical services.

"The patient needs a calm environment and a state of tranquillity. If he suffers paranoia, for example, that feeling could be magnified by marijuana use," Alvarez told Tierramérica.

Nevertheless, the physician believes that the right of the patient to choose must be defended.

The experience with marijuana has been positive for Marcos Deumetrius, 47, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1994.

Deumetrius works two jobs, exercises daily and describes himself as energetic with a good attitude. "The conventional medications didn't let me work. I'd fall asleep on the bus. I couldn't get out of bed because of a nerve problem in one leg. I started using marijuana and my energy came back," he said.

"I think the effect depends on the individual," he added.

The effects are nearly immediate when marijuana is smoked, but take a half hour to an hour if it is eaten. Deumetrius says this is an advantage because it allows him to easily manage the dosage.

Although marijuana is banned under U.S. federal law, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the medicine Marinol, a synthetic compound of THC for treating cancer and AIDS.

But a bottle of 60 Marinol capsules costs 800 to 900 dollars. WAMM calculates that a year's treatment with the government-approved drug would cost 30,000 dollars.

One of the country's leading pro-marijuana activists, Ed Rosenthal, was recently tried by a federal court on charges of growing more than 100 Cannabis sativa plants.

During the trial, the judge did not allow testimony that Rosenthal grew the marijuana for a medical centre in San Francisco. He could face 85 years in prison.

And the marijuana controversy will rage on. In response to the continued DEA raids on cannabis clubs, the citizens of San Francisco approved "Proposition S", which won 63 percent of the vote in the November elections.

Under the statute, the local authorities will be authorised to grow and distribute marijuana for medical purposes. San Francisco would thus become the first U.S. city government to provide the "weed" to the ill among its population.

(Cristina Hernández is a Tierramérica contributor.)

* Tierramérica is a specialised news service ( produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.

© Copyright 2003, Tierramérica