[On Tuesday, March 6, the Drug Policy Education Group, an Arkansas nonprofit working to address the harm caused by the war on drugs, held a one-day conference on the drug war and people with disabilities. The account below is excerpted from an account released by the Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas (http://www.ardpark.org).]
"I've had pain since I was 14," one woman stated. Her voice cracked with emotion and she paused to brush back a strand of white hair. "I've learned to live with it, to be satisfied to be alone."
Another woman, middle-aged, attractive, described the frustration of coping with fibromyalgia, an ailment only recently acknowledged in mainstream medicine and still without effective medication. Even more upsetting to her was the fact that her daughter has it, too, and as a young adult is now fighting her way through pain clinics and other practitioners who each have their own theories and preferred therapeutic approaches, most of which are not effective.
The speakers were part of the "Drug War Effects on People with Disabilities" conference, and it seemed each of them had some story to tell, although many were present in their professional capacities to learn more about helping their clientele. Social workers, counselors, nurses, and disabled persons shared variations on the common theme: medicine that might help is not available.
The morning presentation by Dr. Donald Kreutzer focused on the hysteria surrounding "controlled" drugs.
"Patients who need narcotic pain medications," he pointed out, "may be 'dependent' on them, but only in the same way that people with diabetes are dependent on insulin."
Kreutzer questioned whether agents of law enforcement were the people who should be deciding whether a patient is receiving appropriate medication. The patient is the one who suffers as a result of these policies, he said. Some patients, caught between a doctor's fear of over-prescribing and the crippling reality of constant, agonizing pain, commit suicide. Others search out illegal drugs in an effort to find some relief. For the majority, however, pain becomes the ruler of their lives, there at every dinner hour, every step, every conversation, in spite of the fact that modern medicine has very effective medication that could relieve them of most of their pain.
Mary Lynn Mathre, MSN, RN, CARN, an addictions specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, agreed with Dr. Kreutzer, but raised another issue where the drug war bureaucracy is even more oppressive -- medical marijuana.
"One of the most difficult parts of my job is to face a patient who is taking 16 pills a day, strong medications that are damaging their liver and keeping them so doped up they can barely function, and not be able to recommend to them that they might find more effective relief from marijuana. It's easier when they come to me and say they have already tried it, or that they would like to try it. Then I can talk to them about dosage, safety, and other important information they need to know."
Studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, completed in 1999, supported her, she said.
"The study examined all research that had previously been done on marijuana... [It] concluded that marijuana was not a gateway drug, that it was not addictive, and that it did have significant medical uses. The study even went further -- it said that there is no alternative to smoked marijuana for some patients."
"But here we are two years after the release of that study and the government is still refusing to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana. In fact, the federal government is still fighting laws that have passed in nine states allowing medical use."
One speaker, suffering complete disability that resulted from a car wreck, said that current US policies are a "national moral disgrace."
"We hurt people in new ways, on top of the ways they are already hurting," she said. "And the BS dished out by the government on this is just that -- they say more research is needed. Well how much research does somebody need? If it helps me feel better, that should be enough. Marijuana never killed anybody. And who's going to do the million dollar studies to get marijuana approved by the FDA? Pharmaceutical corporations are in it for the money. They can't make any money off marijuana. People can grow their own!"
Mathre said that medical professionals who know the benefits of marijuana are often afraid to speak up. Instead, she urged those attending the conference to work through their professional organizations.