Pubdate: Mon, 16 Jan 2006
Source: Day, The (New London,CT)
Copyright: 2006 The Day Publishing Co.
Author: M. L. Johnson
Cited: Americans for Safe Access
Cited: Sensible Colorado
Cited: Rhode Island Medical Society
Referenced: The Edward O. Hawkins Medical Marijuana Act
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Rhode Island)


It May Be Legal, but That Doesn't Make It Easy to Get

Providence-- When Debra Nievera went before lawmakers to ask them to 
legalize medical marijuana, she envisioned a program that would let 
her safely acquire the drug to alleviate the painful symptoms of the 
intestinal disorder Crohn's disease and other ailments.

She will probably be disappointed.

Rhode Island this month became the 11th state to allow sick people to 
use marijuana as medicine. But federal law still bans the drug, and 
none of the states where medical use is allowed have found a way for 
patients to legally, conveniently and safely acquire the drug.

In some states, passage of a medical marijuana law has had little 
effect because there is no system set up to get pot to sick people. 
In others, dozens of people have been arrested for providing 
medicinal marijuana.

People in those states warn the road ahead in Rhode Island will 
likely not be as smooth as patients like Nievera hoped.

The federal government classifies marijuana as a controlled substance 
with no medical value. Doctors cannot legally prescribe it, and 
pharmacies cannot stock it.

Most states have tried to strike a middle ground, registering 
patients with diseases such as cancer and AIDS and letting them or 
people designated as their caregivers grow small amounts of marijuana 
for the patients' use.

Max Schlueter, who oversees the state office in Vermont where 
patients who want to use marijuana must register, said it's not that 
simple -- many patients there have been left wondering where they're 
going to get the drug.

"They're just not going to try to score some dope on the street," 
Schlueter said.

Just 23 people have applied to the state's medical marijuana program 
since it was set up two years ago, and he said he believes that's 
partly because of the supply issue.

California took a different approach when it passed the first medical 
marijuana law in 1996. Patients there don't have to register with the 
state and can pay caregivers to grow pot for them. Cities such as 
Oakland and Santa Cruz have designated official growers.

The result is a boom in marijuana clubs that grow hundreds of plants 
for thousands of patients. A few years ago, the state had 30 
dispensaries, said Hilary McQuie, spokeswoman for Americans for Safe 
Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. Today, there are 175.

McQuie estimated that 120,000 Californians use medical marijuana 
because it is relatively easy to get. Oregon, the state with the most 
patients registered, has about 12,000 in its program.

Rhode Island is unlikely to develop a California-like system. Its law 
limits caregivers to growing pot for five people.

In all states, those who grow medicinal marijuana risk getting 
arrested by federal authorities. The most famous supplier arrested 
may be Ed Rosenthal, an author of several books on how to grow 
marijuana. He served one day in prison in 2003 for growing pot for 
patients in Oakland, Calif.

Rosenthal, who had more than 100 plants when he was arrested and is 
appealing his conviction, said it's not realistic for states to 
expect patients -- many of whom are disabled or weakened by illness 
- -- to grow their own pot.

"If we talked about any other medicine, people would get outraged," 
Rosenthal said. "What if you said to a diabetic, 'Well, you have to 
register with the state, you can only have so much at one time, you 
have to buy it on the black market.'"

In Colorado, there have been about a dozen high-profile medical 
marijuana arrests a year by state and federal authorities since the 
state legalized medical marijuana in 2000, said Sean McAllister, 
founder of Sensible Colorado, which advocates for changes in state drug policy.

Diane Brackett, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency's field 
office in New England, said the agency does not target medical 
marijuana patients but focuses on large-scale growers and dealers. 
So, while growers like Rosenthal attract the DEA's attention, medical 
marijuana advocates point out that plenty of people buy pot every day 
without being arrested.

"I could pick up a phone and get some if I needed some," said Rhonda 
O'Donnell, 43, of Warwick, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and 
pushed to have medical marijuana legalized in Rhode Island. "I 
already know people, and I think most people do."

While some medical groups, including the Rhode Island Medical 
Society, support medical marijuana laws, other advocates and 
physicians say they are concerned about the quality of medicinal 
marijuana when it's bought on the street. Also, unlike prescription 
drugs, which are tightly regulated, dosage is hard to control when 
the patient is smoking a plant.

"If you're not growing it yourself, you don't know what you are 
getting," said Schlueter, who runs Vermont's registry. "And I'm not 
talking about marijuana that's been adulterated with rat poison, but 
just has it been stored properly? Is it dusty? Is it moldy? These 
people have compromised immune systems."

That's one thing that worries Nievera, 52, of Coventry, who said she 
is unwilling to buy pot on the street.

"You don't know what the quality is, if you are wasting your money," she said.

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the federal Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, which lobbied Rhode Island's legislators to vote 
against medical marijuana, said the lack of regulation is one of his 
agency's main objections.

"That's not how we do medicine in this country," he said. "What you 
really have created here is one track for all other medicines, and 
another for marijuana." 
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