Pubdate: Wed, 02 May 2001
Source: Cityview (IA)
Copyright: 2001 Cityview
Author: Tim Schmitt


Is the Legislature wrong for repeatedly stopping attempts to reform the 
state's cannabis laws?

The fast-growing leafy green plant usually with five to seven jagged leaves 
is found around the world.  It grows wild in ditches and fields in almost 
all climates and all soil conditions, and is cultivated in gardens, 
government research fields and basement grow rooms.

Its scientific name is cannabis sativa, a species that includes both hemp 
and marijuana - two commonly confused plants that are arguably the most 
controversial and misunderstood in the world.

Depending on its form, cannabis can be smoked for pleasure, or made into 
food, fuel, medicine, fiber and countless other things. It was once one of 
the most important and widely grown crops in the United States, cultivated 
by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and a required crop in 
17th-century Connecticut.

Cannabis supporters claim the plant could single-handedly save the planet 
by easing man's afflictions and reducing or eliminating our reliance on 
environment-damaging fossil fuels.  Opponents consider it the devil's weed, 
capable of ruining lives, stealing children's innocence and starting users 
on a one-way journey to drug addiction and ultimately, death.

So what is the truth about this plant?  It's hard to say.  For every study 
that shows it to be dangerous, addictive or otherwise nasty, several others 
are released which claim the opposite.  For each study that hails marijuana 
as nature's perfect medicine or hemp as the planet's savior, there are a 
dozen people ready to challenge the results.

Many countries, Holland, Canada and Australia among them, have eased laws 
regarding cannabis.  And voters in several states have opted for loosening 
restrictions for both marijuana and hemp, a move that put those states at 
odds with the federal government.

In Iowa, the plant's advocates have been trying for years to convince the 
Legislature to consider its benefits.  This year legislation was once again 
introduced which would have allowed the medical use of marijuana and 
authorized research into the benefits of growing industrial hemp.  And like 
similar bills, both were dead on arrival.

Supporters of both the industrial hemp and medical marijuana initiatives 
believe that most people would agree with them if they had all the 
information.  And they believe the Legislature would pass the bills if this 
support were demonstrated.

This year, in an effort that defies the stereotype of the unmotivated, 
couch-bound stoner, marijuana and hemp proponents have organized public 
awareness rallies to take place in more than 120 cities around the planet 
on May 5.  Among those cities is Des Moines.

Terry Mitchell, a disabled man in his late 40s has been organizing the 
rally in Des Moines, which will begin at the state Capitol at noon. 
Participants plan to meet there and make their case for the reformation of 
cannabis laws, then walk to Nollen Plaza, where several bands are set to 
play until 10 p.m.

Mitchell started working at 14 years old, pumping gas and changing tires, 
and continued doing strenuous physical labor until he was in his mid-40s, 
when the pain in his back forced him to quit.

Mitchell rarely leaves his small Dexter, Iowa, home these days, and leans 
heavily on a cane whenever he's on his feet, usually bent at the waist into 
a near fetal position.  He has been in constant pain for several years from 
the degenerative disc disease that put him on permanent disability and is 
causing his spine to slowly crumble away. Most days he cannot walk to the 
end of his street, only a block and a half away, without stopping several 
times to rest and allow the pain to subside.

A slew of prescribed medicines has failed to provide Mitchell relief, or 
did so at the expense of mobility.  They either failed to ease the pain or 
left him a zombie, unable to move from his bed for more than an hour or two 
each day.

"I'd been on pain killers and muscle relaxers for two years," he says. "I 
was either asleep 20 hours a day or a walking zombie and I was still in pain."

Terri Valko lives in Des Moines and suffers from the same disease as 
Mitchell.  Several of her vertebrae have been replaced with metal plates. 
After years of yoga and with quite a bit of effort, Valko can now turn her 
head almost to her shoulder.

Valko, too, has been prescribed a lot of drugs.  Years of morphine, Vicodin 
and other drugs have taken their toll, eating away at her stomach and 
throat to the point where she required surgery on her esophagus.

"I've had a lot of surgeries and a lot of pain," she says.  "The medicines 
are just eating me up.  All I want is to not hurt anymore."

Mitchell and Valko are two of the thousands of chronically ill people who 
have found relief by smoking marijuana.  And like all but the eight people 
in the country who receive medical marijuana from the federal government, 
they are breaking the law every time they light up.

"I don't smoke to get high," says Mitchell.  "I take it like medicine. The 
main point behind me smoking is being able to get up and move."

Valko echoes this statement, saying smoking pot is not about getting a 
buzz, but about getting relief.

"I really started smoking to try to avoid taking all the medications," she 
says.  "The side effects are killing me."

Valko and Mitchell have been straightforward with their physicians about 
their marijuana use, and both say the doctors have been as supportive as 
they legally can with their decision to self-medicate with the drug.

"The only bad side effect of smoking cannabis is the guy with the bubble 
gums on the car," says Mitchell.


Marijuana is nature's perfect medicine, say those who use it as such. And 
prohibiting its use is a crime against those who suffer without it. 
Patients with glaucoma, cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, 
arthritis and spinal cord injuries have all reported benefits from smoking 
or eating the plant.

 From 1850 until it was outlawed in 1937, tincture of cannabis was the 
primary medicine used to treat more than 100 illnesses, everything from 
menstrual cramps to epilepsy, and the American Medical Association opposed 
removing marijuana from the pharmacopoeia.

In 1970, the Controlled Substance Act turned control of marijuana over to 
law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency.  It was classified as a 
schedule 1 narcotic, meaning it was banned from research and prescription.

"Prohibition leads to the black market, and the only control available is 
law enforcement," says Derrick Grimmer, staff adviser for the ISU chapter 
of NORML (The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws). "That's 
consistently shown to be a failure over time.

"Everybody seems to be leaning that way (toward legalization or 
decriminalization) except the United States and places like Saudi Arabia 
and Singapore.  If the United States wants to be in league with those 
countries, then that's another story."

Barbara Douglass has been smoking pot - nine ounces a month - since 1992 
and credits the medicine with saving her life.

"I think marijuana should be recognized as the medicine it is," she 
says.  "The biggest benefit is I'm still alive.  It's given me a way and a 
reason to carry on."

Unlike Mitchell and Valko, Douglass takes her medicine legally.  In 1992, 
Douglass, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, became the last patient 
approved to receive medical marijuana under a program run by the federal 

Douglass is now 47 years old and still lives on her own in a small house on 
Spirit Lake, and the progression of her disease has been slower than usual.

"I've been told repeatedly that I've beaten the odds," she says. "I'm still 
walking, I'm not in a wheelchair, or a nursing home, and I know it's the 
pot.  I feel very sorry for these people that they can't help their 
diseases with marijuana as I have."

Grimmer says it would be better to bring marijuana, and other drugs, into 
the sphere of regulation, much like alcohol and tobacco, so they could be 
taxed and controlled.

"I think it's clear that the drug war is a failure and the drug war is 
basically a war against marijuana," he says.  "Marijuana is not an 
addictive drug; alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are.  The same rules should 
be applied to marijuana as these drugs."

To bolster his argument, he rattles off the statistics: A half million dead 
from tobacco-related illness each year; 150,000 alcohol-related deaths, not 
including drunken driving fatalities.  Caffeine annually causes about 1,000 
deaths a year, and even aspirin kills more than 100 people annually.

But no death has ever been attributed to marijuana.

At one time the DEA's own administrative law judge, Judge Francis Young, 
said there is "accepted safety for the use of marijuana under medical 
supervision and to deny that would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious."

Mitchell says keeping cannabis illegal is purely a political move, one 
meant to protect those with a financial interest in keeping it illegal at 
the expense of people who would benefit from its many uses.

"The only people opposed to it are those it would affect," he says. "The 
cotton industry would suffer, the timber industry would suffer and the 
prison industry would suffer."

Mitchell has planned the rally to start at the Capitol at noon. Protesters 
will later walk together to Nollen Plaza, but because of the discs that are 
crumbling in his back, it's a walk that Mitchell will likely be unable to 

"I'll try like hell, but I don't think I'll make it."


Ditchweed, as it's often called, can be found across the state. Almost 
everyone's heard a tale from a relative or friend who dried and smoked an 
armful of the stuff only to end up with a sore throat and a headache.

This is hemp.  The leafy green plant that pops up almost everywhere from 
roadsides to back yards.  It is not marijuana.  Smoking it cannot and will 
not get you high.

Marijuana contains the chemical THC, which causes mild euphoria when smoked 
or eaten.  Hemp has only trace amounts of THC, not nearly enough for even 
the weakest lightweight to cop a buzz.

Hemp can save the planet, claims its proponents.  Its seed can be 
transformed into fuel and food, the rest of the plant can be turned into an 
almost endless variety of products, from clothing to building materials, 
and hemp can be grown more sustainably with less damage to the environment 
than other crops.  It could save farms and boost a slumping economy, 
provide jobs for thousands and decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels.

The United States once relied heavily on hemp for industry before the 
Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 outlawed the plant.  The Declaration of 
Independence was written on hemp paper, and the sails of ships in the 
Revolutionary War were made of hemp, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson 
grew the plant, and in 1640 the governor of Connecticut declared, "Every 
citizen must grow the plant."

Even after it was outlawed in 1937, the U.S. government launched a campaign 
in the '40s to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. "Hemp for 
Victory," was the call, but after the war, hemp production was again 

But the hemp industry has grown exponentially since then, and the United 
States has missed out.  Hemp-based products, from beauty supplies to 
clothing, can be purchased at many retail outlets, and Adidas, Ralph Lauren 
and Calvin Klein all include hemp products in their clothing lines.  Sales 
of hemp products in the United States in 1994 were estimated at $25 
million, but none of the product originates within our borders.

France harvests approximately 10,000 tons of hemp annually.  It is 
cultivated legally throughout much of Europe and Asia, and test plots have 
been successfully cultivated in Canada and Australia.

The fear in the United States is largely that allowing hemp is the first 
step on the slippery slope to marijuana legalization.  It has also been 
suggested that hemp fields could, and likely would, be used to hide 
marijuana plants, an impossible act given that marijuana growing anywhere 
near the vicinity of hemp would be rendered impotent by cross-pollination. 
No country that currently allows the cultivation of industrial hemp has 
reported experiencing an increase of marijuana use.

Though the federal government and the DEA maintain their opposition to 
hemp, several states are looking into the possibility of growing it within 
their borders.  Hawaii, Kentucky, Vermont, North Dakota and several other 
states have passed industrial hemp research legislation and it's been 
proposed many times in other states.

Several years ago Roger Gipple went to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to 
get them on board with the industrial hemp idea.  Iowa's farmers are 
hurting and are always looking for ways to diversify crops, he figured, so 
introducing hemp to the state seemed like a no-brainer. After all, hemp 
germinates relatively early in the spring in low soil temperature, grows to 
cultivation in about 100 days and can grow just about anywhere.  It has the 
potential to be manufactured into more than 25,000 products, and the market 
for hemp is booming.

The Farm Bureau was interested and agreed to support the idea. Legislation 
was presented which would have allowed research into hemp production to 
begin and it appeared as though it would pass, but a last-minute call from 
Gov. Terry Branstad to Republican legislators killed the bill.

"I came to the realization then that there was a brick wall when it comes 
to this and that the work needs to be done on a federal level," says Gipple.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is the only federal agency that can 
legally grant permits to grow hemp, and it is opposed to any revision of 
existing hemp laws.

"Even states that have passed industrial hemp initiatives have had the DEA 
come in and burn it up," says Gipple.

Henry Ford used industrial hemp to make plastics, lubricants and fuels and 
called for a plant-based economy with a focus on hemp, an idea that still 
makes sense to Gipple.

"We would be raising our own energy and our own fiber, so Iowa would be 
raising and creating its own building materials, textiles, fuels and 
lubricants," he says.  "This is something I'll always be working on, but I 
know it won't happen quickly, in a year or two.  But it will happen."

"We're looking for ways to diversify agriculture.  And if we weren't such 
prudes, industrial hemp would be an answer," says state Rep. Ed Fallon, 
co-sponsor of the most recent industrial hemp bill.  "It has definite 
industrial benefits."

Though nine other representatives signed on to the bill, there was still 
not enough support to have it seriously considered.

In addition to co-sponsoring the industrial hemp legislation, Fallon 
introduced the medical marijuana bill, just like he does every year. Both, 
he says, are "deader than a doornail."

"And it's a shame," he says.  "We'd be helping people who have legitimate 
needs that would benefit from the drug."

Valko is hopeful that the laws will change someday and she'll be able to 
get the medicine that helps her without risking time in jail.  She says the 
pain from her disease has been so bad at times that she's considered 
killing herself just to bring it to an end.

"If you can smoke a little pot to keep from blowing your brains out, so be 
it," she says.

"Something has to be done.  People go out and drink alcohol and kill 
people, but I can't take my medicine.  It's got to be legalized.  This is 

"So many people smoke pot and complain about it being illegal.  But they 
won't stand up for their rights, and so nothing will change," she adds. 
"Things will only change if enough people stand up and say this isn't right."

Fallon agrees, saying the only way the state's cannabis laws will change is 
if enough people demand it.

"Every year, we bring up medical marijuana and it gets killed.  And every 
year, someone brings up industrial hemp and it gets killed," he says. "The 
Legislature is not a group of leaders, but followers. These issues are 
going to take a lot more public awareness and comfort to get anywhere."

And that, says Mitchell, is the purpose of the rally this weekend.

"I hope to make a lot more people ask questions," he says.  "I want to know 
why it is illegal and I don't want to hear just 'it's against the law,' 
That's not good enough.  I want to know why.  There's a lot more people 
like me out there.

"I wrote the governor, I can give him 1,000 reasons it should be legal, and 
I want him to give me just five reasons it shouldn't be. If he can do that, 
I'll back off."

The rally this Saturday, May 5th, begins at noon on the Capitol steps and 
will move to Nollen Plaza around 4 p.m.  Several bands will be playing at 
Nollen Plaza until 10 p.m. as part of the rally.  For more information, 
call Terry Mitchell at (515) 789-4442
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