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August 12, 2005

Madison's Isthmus: Will Wisconsin allow pot as medicine?

Posted by Gary Storck
August 12, 2005

Madison's weekly Isthmus ran this version of Lisa Kaiser's great article from Milwaukee's weekly Shepherd-Express. The Isthmus version included a photo of yours truly.

Newshawk: Is My Medicine Legal YET? www.immly.org
Source: Isthmus
Pubdate: 12 August 2005
Author: Lisa Kaiser
Note: Article accompanied by approximately 4 in. x 4 in. photo of Gary having his medicine.
Cited: Is My Medicine Legal YET? http://www.immly.org
Cited: Wisconsin NORML www.winorml.org


Most citizens support its legal use, but politicians may be too afraid

When support for an issue approaches 80% among Wisconsin residents, you would think that our state representatives would be falling all over themselves to follow the will of the people. But when the issue is legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, things get complicated.

On one side are people who use marijuana to help them cope with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, glaucoma or chronic pain, among other things.

Gary Storck, a medical marijuana activist in Madison, is one of those people. "As a small child, I found myself rapidly losing my eyesight," Storck says. "I would pray to God that I wouldn't go blind, and that's a horrible way to grow up. Eventually I was diagnosed with glaucoma."

Storck found out that smoking marijuana relieved the pressure in his eyes. In 1979, his doctor wrote him a note saying that if marijuana were legal, he would recommend it for Storck. To this day, Storck, who's on Social Security disability, uses marijuana to treat his glaucoma and other medical problems.

"I've been on a lot of treatments, but this is reliable without having a lot of bad side effects," says Storck, who together with Jacki Rickert heads a group called, Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY), which advocates for the legal use of medical marijuana.

On the other side of the issue are people who prefer a "Just say no" approach to drugs, except those marketed by big pharmaceutical companies. "Our national medical system relies on proven scientific research, not popular opinion," said John Walters, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in a recent statement.

"The politics of this are fascinating," says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. He cites a nationwide poll conducted in June that showing that 65% of those surveyed would support legalized medical marijuana. And a 2002 poll conducted by Chamberlain Research Consultants in Madison showed about 80% support in Wisconsin.

"It's clear that this isn't a controversial issue for individuals, but a lot of politicians are afraid of being seen as being soft on drugs," he says. "But what other issue gets this high in polling?"

He adds that people who support legalizing pot as medicine, but they didn't realize how strong the idea is backed. "What we have is a majority that doesn't know it's a majority."

As if to illustrate the issue's unpredictable political nature, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that the federal government may arrest and prosecute legal users of medical marijuana in states with official programs. Among the majority were some of the court's more liberal justices including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens. The dissenters were Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2004.

State Rep. Gregg Underheim, (R-Oshkosh) has his own reasons for the supporting the legal use of marijuana as medicine. The chair of the Assembly's Committee on Health, Underheim was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Although he did not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment, he spoke to other cancer patients about the possibility of using marijuana in such circumstances.

"There is a wide array of medical uses," Underheim says. "Marijuana more effectively deals with issues of appetite. When you are in chemotherapy, you can become violently ill. Marijuana quells the nausea and gives you an appetite. Also, AIDS patients are often rail thin from all of their medications, and marijuana helps bring back their appetite.

Last year, Underheim introduced a bill that would allow for the legal use of medical marijuana in Wisconsin. Users would have to be under a doctor's care and register with the state and could possess only small amounts of marijuana.

"Under my bill, a doctor could recommend it but not prescribe it," Underheim says. "If a registered patient were caught with a small amount, he or she would not be prosecuted."

Underheim plans to reintroduce similar legislation in the next several weeks; the bill is now being drafted. If passed, Wisconsin would join 10 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

But, Underheim's proposed bill leaves open the question of how patients would acquire pot -- no growing clubs, personal plants or sanctioned pharmacies. "I've remained silent on acquisition," he says. "I couldn't think of any way that would be acceptable."

This lack of access worries Gary Storck. "This puts patients in a tight spot," he says. "If you grow it, you're facing potentially a long time [in jail] if you're caught. Besides, if you're in chemo you could be dead before you grow a crop. Your friends or family could help you out or you could get it on the street, but that's medicine of uncertain quality and you risk being arrested."

State Sen. Tim Carpenter ( D-Milwaukee) sponsored the state Senate's version of the medical marijuana bill last year. "We'd been contacted by many constituents who were HIV positive or had cancer or leukemia," he says. "They thought that marijuana was lifesaving medication that could help alleviate the devastating side effects of their treatments."

While Carpenter is willing to let the details of any proposed legislation work themselves out, but said that he would support a program that would fall under the supervision of the Department of Health and Family Services. He also wants to " sit down with the attorney general and law enforcement to talk about it from all perspectives and get their input."

The public, stresses Carpenter, also has a role to play. "If the bill comes up for a public hearing, it's important that people make their feelings known," he says. "We want to deal with this in a humane way and alleviate people's pain and suffering."

Although drug czar Walters has said that the Supreme Court's decision "marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue," others say that the battle has just begun.

Just after the decision, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on an amendment to end federal raids on those who use medical marijuana. While the measure was defeated, it drew more support than previous versions.

Many Republicans -- especially those from states with legalized medical marijuana programs -- voted in favor of the measure. But in Wisconsin, the issue split the state's congressional delegation along party lines, with all four Democrats voting in favor and all four Republicans opposing it.

The issue will live on in the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, authored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass. ) and co-sponsored by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). It essentially tells the federal government to get out of the way of states that choose to enact medical marijuana laws.

Advocate Storck says politicians and the public should think about the morality of banning medicinal marijuana. "In a nation that prides itself on being compassionate, it's extremely cruel to withhold this medication from our most defenseless and vulnerable."

"Serious illness can strike at any time. Think about if that day comes for you. You would want to have all treatment options available to you. This ban is irrational, cruel and it's got to end."

That's not how the anti-marijuana crowd tends to see it. They portray legal users are zonked-out stoners who use their medical conditions as excuses to get high. In this and other respects, marijuana's reputation as the favored drug of '60s hippies and experimenting teenagers is still working against it.

"Marijuana has a bad name in some quarters," Republican state Rep. Gregg Underheim says. "It's seen as a gateway drug for younger people."

Some say that smoking medical marijuana can lead to addiction. But state Sen. Tim Carpenter notes that OxyContin, a legal prescription painkiller and a sought-after street drug, as one of the most addictive drugs around. "But nobody said, gee, legalizing it will put more of it out there for people to abuse."

Foes of medicinal marijuana also claim that the prescribed cannabis can wind up in the hands of others for recreational use, or what is known as "diversion." But Underheim says there's no proof of that.

"In states where you see the medical usage of marijuana you see no real diversion," Underheim says. "People are responsible in their use of it and they'd be reluctant to give their medication to others."

And Storck says the relaxation and improved mood from smoking marijuana are pleasant side effects, not a reason for banning it.

"As far as euphoria goes, what's so wrong with feeling good?" he asks. "If you're sick, and this makes you feel better without a lot of bad side effects, why not use it?"


[SIDEBAR: On the Web:

Is My Medicine Legal Yet ( IMMLY )
Wisconsin-based organization "dedicated to furthering access, public
education and research regarding the therapeutic uses of cannabis."

Marijuana Policy Project
Non-profit group, the largest marijuana reform organization in the country.

Medical Marijuana Pro And Con
Provides a balanced, comprehensive look at the medical marijuana debate.

Wisconsin NORML
Information about the state chapter of National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Law; group "supports the right of adults to use marijuana
responsibly, whether for medical or recreational purposes."

Office of National Drug Control Policy
The official word from the government.


Posted by Gary at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)