DrugSense FOCUS Alert #362 - Monday, 24 March 2008
Earlier this month, the voters of Michigan succeeded in qualifying an initiative for the November election ballot. When passed by the voters on November 4th Michigan law will allow patients to use, possess, and grow their own marijuana for medical purposes with their doctors' approval. This will likely make Michigan the first medical marijuana state in the heartland, although there are bills pending in some other midwest states. Michigan is home to more than 10 million people. Of the states with current effective medical marijuana laws only California has a larger population.
Three articles were written for the Sunday editions of the Kalamazoo Gazette this month, a newspaper in the heartland of Michigan. They illustrate the battle Michigan folks will have in the media in the months ahead. The author of the articles, Chris Killian, went to some length to find both pro and con arguments.
Please read the articles at http://www.mapinc.org/author/Chris+Killian
Note that for the two oldest articles Michigan letter writers have responded as shown at the 'Letters' link at the top of each MAP archived article.
We are not suggesting that out of state letter writers respond to Michigan press articles about the initiative. This is a battle best fought by in state letter writers.
Folks outside Michigan may find other ways to support the initiative by going to the initiative website at http://stoparrestingpatients.org/
But the three articles do illustrate the type of arguments made in the press both for and against medicinal marijuana initiatives, bills and laws in every state. As letter writers improve their arguments in letters sent to their state papers they advance the issue.
Excerpts from 'Nuclear-Blast Survivor Heads Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access' published on March 9th:
The atomic explosions off remote islands in the South Pacific seemed to turn night into day.
They also turned Martin Chilcutt into a marijuana user.
Chilcutt said the drug has helped him to ease the pain he says dates back to his exposure to radiation during a 1956 U.S. government project testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.
A state ballot proposal could allow voters in November to decide whether Chilcutt's measures to self-medicate should be legal in Michigan.
The 74-year-old former intelligence officer with the U.S. Naval Air Force has used other medications to help him with his physical and psychological problems, but marijuana helps "so much better," he said.
Although there are different ways to use the drug, such as ingesting or inhaling it, there is no difference in the drug's effect based on consumption, according to the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, which is spearheading the state marijuana initiative.
"It just makes life so much easier," he said. "It allows you to be comfortable."
Chilcutt, a retired psychotherapist, said he first learned of marijuana's medical benefits in the late 1970s while counseling Vietnam War veterans in California. They told him the drug could help allay his pain, he said.
He said he takes eight other medications for ailments the marijuana doesn't help, including a thyroid condition.
Advocates for the medical use of marijuana say it's also effective in easing symptoms from other serious illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.
Critics cite a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report in 2006 that said "no sound scientific studies" support the medical use of the drug.
If the marijuana-use proposal is approved by state voters, Michigan would become the 15th state -- and the first in the Midwest -- with a law that permits marijuana use for seriously ill people. Michigan law currently prohibits marijuana use for any reason.
It's estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 people -- about one-half of 1 percent of Michigan residents -- would be eligible to use marijuana for medical purposes. In states where the law is now in place, it's estimated the same percentage of residents would qualify to use the drug, according to the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care.
The article 'Most Area Lawmakers Oppose Marijuana As Medical Treatment' published March 16th:
For five years, state Sen. Tom George worked for Hospice of Greater Kalamazoo, sometimes prescribing a synthetic form of marijuana called Marinol to help ease a person's pain or discomfort.
But George, an anesthesiologist, opposes a ballot proposal that seeks to legalize marijuana use in Michigan for those seriously ill.
State Rep. Fulton Sheen, a conservative Republican, opposed medical-marijuana use until he heard testimony from people who said they got relief from debilitating conditions by using the drug.
He now supports the initiative, which could appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Of southwestern Michigan's 10 state lawmakers, seven said they oppose legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Joining George, R-Texas Township, were state Sens. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck; Cameron Brown, R-Sturgis; and Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks; and state Reps. Jack Hoogendyk, R-Texas Township; Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; and Rick Shaffer, R-Three Rivers. Such an initiative, they think, could lead to more crime and abuse among nonmedical marijuana users and could be the first step to complete legalization of marijuana.
"Marijuana is illegal for a reason," Jelinek said. "Its legalization, even for medical reasons, would denigrate our society eventually. (Using marijuana) is akin to a self-induced mental illness."
State Reps. Robert Jones, D-Kalamazoo, and Sheen, R-Plainwell, support the initiative. They said those seriously ill should have marijuana as a treatment option if it helps and is properly regulated.
"The right story needs to be told by the right people," Jones said. "We can't be afraid of this as a society. Marijuana is a legitimate treatment for those suffering from serious diseases."
State Rep. Lorence Wenke, R-Galesburg, said he is undecided on the medical-marijuana initiative.
"These are the types of proposals that politicians run from," Wenke said. "It's a very intense issue."
Bill Ballenger, a Lansing-based political analyst and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said it's easier for the Legislature to choose to not act on the initiative and allow voters to decide its fate. Leaders from the Senate and House have said they don't expect legislative action on the proposal. Gov. Jennifer Granholm opposes it.
"Finding a legislator who forms a gutsy position on issues like medical marijuana, like supporting it, is difficult," said Ballenger, adding he expects voters to pass the ballot initiative.
Change of Heart
Sheen said he was skeptical about supporting marijuana use for medical needs until he heard testimony from people who said it helped ease their suffering.
The 2006 hearing was held on a bill that was similar to the current ballot initiative. The measure never got out of a House committee.
"As I listened to their testimony and heard how (marijuana) had helped them, my mind began to change," Sheen said. "Now I look at (marijuana) as a kind of prescription drug for those who are very sick. And if it alleviates symptoms, isn't that what a prescription drug is supposed to do?"
In the 1990s Sheen's brother, who had contracted AIDS, was dying. In the final months of his life he smoked marijuana, which helped him to breathe and swallow easier, Sheen said.
"Although I didn't agree with what he was doing at the time, it helped him," Sheen said. "But now my mind has been changed."
But George, who worked from 1996 to 2001 at Hospice of Greater Kalamazoo, said the active ingredient in marijuana -- tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC -- is already available in pill form. Although George admits many patients to whom he prescribed Marinol responded favorably, marijuana -- even in synthetic form -- should not be "a front-line treatment," he said.
"What is the additional benefit of legalizing marijuana?" George said. "And even with the Marinol, it should play a small role in any treatment."
Potential for Abuse
It's estimated about one-half of 1 percent of Michigan residents, between 40,000 and 50,000 people, would be eligible for medical-marijuana use.
"There is such widespread use of marijuana that having a very few patients use it legally isn't that big of a problem," Jones said.
Other area legislators disagree.
"Everybody's going to have a backache," Jelinek said of the potential for people faking chronic pain or other serious health problems.
Schuitmaker said she "sympathizes with suffering individuals," but still can't support the initiative.
"This would be legalizing a drug that has had a detrimental effect on society and be the first step to the legalization of marijuana for nonmedical uses," she said. "It's a slippery slope."
The proposal calls for registered medical users to keep the marijuana in a secure, locked location. Users who give or sell their marijuana to those who are not authorized to have it could be subject to stiff fines and possible jail time. Users also would have to register themselves with the state and carry a state-issued ID card indicating they are a registered medical user.
Even with such controls, some lawmakers question how effective enforcement and regulation will be, especially if the number of medical marijuana users increases.
"There are other options out there for very sick people (besides marijuana). By not supporting this, it's not like we're denying a dying patient relief," said Hoogendyk, who recently announced he will challenge Democratic Sen. Carl Levin in the U.S. Senate.
Excerpt from 'Debate Continues Whether Risks of Medical Marijuana Outweigh the Benefits' published March 23rd:
The chief medical officer of Kalamazoo County might use marijuana to alleviate the pain of his glaucoma -- if it were legal.
In 2000, Richard Tooker, 54, was diagnosed with pigmentary glaucoma, a rare eye disease where fluid buildup inside the eye can lead to intense pain. Blindness is also possible.
"I would consider taking it, if it were legal, for medical use," he said. "I want to keep my vision."
Studies have shown marijuana can lessen pressure in the eyes of those with glaucoma.
Tooker said he would have to consult with legal counsel before he used the drug. That's because, even if Michigan voters in November decide to allow medical marijuana use by seriously ill patients, it still would be illegal under federal law.
Users of medical marijuana, as well as others who support its use, say the drug offers relief to those suffering debilitating conditions. They also say it would be cheaper than buying the drug off the street and that use and production can be controlled if properly regulated.
But questions remain.
How would the appropriate dose be established for those who are deemed eligible users? Are there possible negative health effects from using the drug for medical reasons? Do alternatives to medical marijuana already exist?
"On the balance, it's a good thing," Tooker said of medical marijuana. "And if we're going to legalize marijuana for medical use in Michigan, let's legalize it across the country. It's a dicey, difficult issue."
State Sen. Tom George, R-Texas Township, worked for Hospice of Greater Kalamazoo and sometimes prescribed a synthetic -- and legal -- form of marijuana called Marinol.
But the drug is not cheap.
George, an anesthesiologist, opposes the ballot initiative because of the availability of Marinol and the possible health risks of medical marijuana.
"Marinol is better than smokeable marijuana because Marinol does not contain the additional chemicals, impurities and hazards associated with smoke," George said in a statement this month to the Senate. "Also, the resulting THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) blood levels and hence, the effects, are more predictable with Marinol than smokeable marijuana."
George said other drugs being developed would include THC, the main active component of marijuana. One drug is called Sativex, which if approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could be used as a treatment for patients with advanced cancers.
Approved in November by the FDA for clinical testing, the drug would be administered as an oral spray.
"I'm telling you, as a former hospice physician, it is of no benefit to legalize smokeable marijuana," George said.
The FDA agrees.
"There are alternative FDA-approved medications in existence for treatment of many of the proposed uses of smoked marijuana," the agency said in a statement in 2006.
But Marinol, available since 1986, has its problems, said Ruth Hoppe, head of the Michigan chapter of the American College of Physicians, the nation's second largest physicians group.
Marinol is absorbed slowly into the body, she said, and a patient experiencing extreme nausea might not be able to use it because the pill must be swallowed to be effective.
"We need to look at other routes of delivery," Hoppe said.
Potential for Abuse?
Smoking anything is harmful to one's health, Hoppe said. But that doesn't mean marijuana doesn't have its place as a legitimate medical treatment or supplement to other medications.
The American College of Physicians recently released a position paper on medical marijuana. It concluded that, although more research needs to be done, "reports suggest numerous potential medical uses for marijuana."
"For patients with AIDS or those undergoing chemotherapy, who suffer severe pain, nausea and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs may provide symptom relief not found in any other medication," the position paper said.
The federal government, however, puts marijuana in the same class as LSD, heroin, mescaline, psychedelic mushrooms and ecstasy.
"Marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision," the 2006 FDA report said.
The government's classification of marijuana hinders study of the drug for medical use, Hoppe said. The American College of Physicians is recommending reclassifying the drug to allow for more study.
"I can see a day when marijuana is seen as a legitimate medical treatment, especially in conjunction with other medications," Hoppe said. "There is value in this drug."
'Trial and Error' Doses
Marinol comes in doses of 2.5 milligrams, 5 milligrams and 10 milligrams. Determining the proper dose of marijuana from plants is less scientific because it can be smoked, drunk, eaten or inhaled through a vaporizer.
Tooker, who is open to the medical uses for marijuana, said he opposes smoking it. He said "trial and error" would be the only way to determine what the appropriate dose of marijuana would be for a patient.
Dianne Byrum, a former state legislator and spokeswoman for the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, said the dose level would depend on the patient's needs and symptoms.
"This would be a recommendation, not a prescription," she said.
She also said smoking marijuana would not be harmful, especially for patients with terminal conditions.
Style guides for writing effective letters to the editor are available at MAP's Media Activism Center:
Prepared by: The MAP Media Activism Team www.mapinc.org/resource
DrugSense provides many services at no charge, but they are not free to produce. Your contributions make DrugSense and its Media Awareness Project (MAP) happen. Please donate today. Our secure Web server at http://www.drugsense.org/donate.htm
accepts credit cards. Or, mail your check or money order to: . DrugSense 14252 Culver Drive #328 Irvine, CA 92604-0326.
(800) 266 5759
DrugSense is a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the expensive, ineffective, and destructive "War on Drugs." Donations are tax deductible to the extent provided by law.