Pubdate: Mon, 23 Mar 2009
Source: Post-Bulletin (Rochester, MN)
Copyright: 2009 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Tim Jones, Chicago Tribune
Cited: Michigan Medical Marijuana Association
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


PAW PAW, Mich. -- At first glance they look like old pals, maybe a 
bunch from the Rotary Club leisurely gabbing away over the hamburger 
special, making the waitress work overtime for her tip.

But these guys are different. Their eyes, their fidgeting and their 
restlessness betray a shared bond of chronic pain, sleepless nights, 
depression and a reliance on heavy-duty prescription drugs. Around 
this lunchtime table, they talk about the only thing that gives them 
a measure of peace, the only thing that, for perhaps a few hours, 
sets them free: marijuana.

They've been smoking or eating marijuana for years -- privately and 
illegally. And now, because Michigan voters approved marijuana use 
for the treatment of certain serious maladies, Bob White soon will be 
able to get himself together in his Three Rivers home "without having 
to draw the shades."

Legalized medical marijuana is about to make its debut in Michigan, 
which becomes the 13th state and the first between the Rockies and 
the East Coast to embrace the controversial pain treatment. In a vote 
last November that defied the culture war/reefer madness connotation 
to the illegal drug, 63 percent of the state's voters -- and a 
majority in every county -- said yes to medical marijuana. The 
measure collected 250,000 more votes than Barack Obama, who won the 
state easily.

"This shows that, bottom line, medical use of marijuana is not very 
controversial with the public," said Wendy Chapkis, co-author of 
"Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine."

"Politicians are afraid to look soft on drugs, but the public 
understands that cannabis is not a problem for medical use," Chapkis said.

The police disagree, and so do many politicians. In a change in 
federal policy, the Justice Department this week said it will go 
after California's medical marijuana distributors only if they 
violate federal and state laws. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, warned 
Thursday that such a policy will encourage use of harder drugs.

Opponents appear to be a minority protest against a movement gaining 
momentum. In the wake of the Michigan vote, legislatures in other 
states -- including Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey -- are 
advancing bills to legalize the medical use of marijuana, and 
Michigan will be watched carefully to see how it works for people 
like the men who recently sat around a table at a west Michigan diner.

There is no sense of euphoria among the men, each weary from grinding 
pain. Their maladies include cancer, rheumatoid arthritis; neck, back 
and spinal problems; nerve disorders; depression; and sleep apnea, 
for which they take a cabinetful of prescription painkillers and 
other medications. Marijuana provides only temporary relief. For 
them, marijuana is not the ticket to a better life, but to a 
temporarily less difficult one.

Some, like bleary-eyed Bill Kelly, who grew up in a conservative 
family, came to it apprehensively. Kelly, 26, suffers from nerve 
disorders and depression. His foot went numb over lunch.

"It got to the point where my psychiatrist was my drug dealer," said 
Kelly, who said a turning point for him was when his doctor 
prescribed anti-psychotic drugs "and all I saw was red and green 
colors." The Kalamazoo man said he started smoking marijuana in the past year.

Technically, medical marijuana became legal in Michigan in December, 
a month after the public vote. The law takes full effect in April, 
when doctors begin receiving applications from patients seeking 
authorization to use marijuana for illnesses such as cancer, 
HIV-AIDS, glaucoma and other maladies that provoke chronic pain. Once 
they receive cards authorizing marijuana use, patients can grow their 
own -- up to 12 plants -- or designate a "caregiver" who will grow 
marijuana for them. Unlike California, there will be no public 
dispensaries that sell marijuana.

But there are legal holes and inconsistencies in the law that, in 
many ways, will likely preserve the underground nature of marijuana 
use. Patients can legally buy marijuana on the street, but sellers 
can be prosecuted. Although patients can grow their own plants, they 
cannot legally obtain the seeds to grow them. Medical doctors are not 
required to participate. And, despite the imprimatur of legality from 
the state of Michigan, there is nothing in the law to protect medical 
marijuana patients from being dismissed by their employer for using marijuana.

Ron Stephens lost his job in 2007 after a urine test detected 
marijuana. Stephens, 50, suffers from depression and a chronic neck 
disorder that limits his neck, shoulder and arm movements. He's 
undergone a spinal fusion operation, has lost the use of his right 
hand and cannot sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes. He spent a decade 
taking prescribed painkillers, including Vicodin, Percocet and the 
synthetic narcotic methadone, which he took for two years.

"Somehow it was OK for me to show up for work with all those drugs in 
me," said Stephens, who asked that his hometown not be identified. 
"Marijuana carries such as stigma. It's so ... stupid."

Stephens is now growing his own marijuana, out of economic necessity, 
given its $125- to $300-per-ounce cost, he said. He built his own 
"grow room" with high-powered lights and reflective paper on the 
walls, which is really silver Christmas wrapping.

The grow-it-yourself decision presents a big problem because it puts 
patients at risk of break-ins and theft, said Greg Francisco, 
executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, 
which led the successful ballot campaign.

So-called "grow-rippers" are only part of the concern of the police, 
who predict the law will ignite widespread marijuana abuse.

"You can call it medical marijuana, but this is the nose under the 
tent to the legalization of marijuana," said George Basar, chief of 
police in Howell and president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs 
of Police. "My biggest fear is large, sophisticated growing 
operations and, eventually, storefront operations, which will lead to 
narcotics robberies.

"I think what we've done here is taken the pot needs of a small 
segment of the population and blew the door wide-open to lots of 
others," Basar added.

Some supporters of the new law acknowledge the potential for abuse. 
Bob White, who suffers from myasthenia gravis, a muscle wasting 
disease, and arthritis of the back and knees, predicted "a few idiots 
will abuse it." John Targowski, a criminal defense attorney in 
Kalamazoo who specializes in drug cases, said he worries that 
"opponents will succeed in convincing people that it is a Trojan 
horse for legalization."

Targowski, 31, is a paraplegic who used cannabis under California's 
medical marijuana law when he practiced in that state. He cautions 
against letting opponents define the law as a boon for bearded 
hippies and potheads. "This isn't about people smoking joints, but 
I'm afraid it could turn into a culture war instead of a rational 
scientific discussion," Targowski said.

The public seems to be miles ahead of the political establishment on 
the issue. Eleven of the 13 states that have approved medical 
marijuana have done so through public referendums, not the legislative process.

Majorie Russell, a professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 
Lansing, said the measure passed in Michigan because large numbers of 
baby boomers either have personal experience or know someone who has 
gone through chemotherapy or suffers from chronic pain. "That changed 
a lot of attitudes," Russell said. 
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