Pubdate: Mon, 6 Apr 2009
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Page: A1, Front Page
Copyright: 2009 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Author: Anna Scott
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


Marijuana is the only drug Cathy Jordan says helps her fight Lou 
Gehrig's disease. The 59-year-old mother smokes two joints every 
night to relieve depression and muscle spasms, and to boost her appetite.

"It's keeping me alive," said Jordan in an interview at her home in 
Parrish. "Anti-depressants made me a zombie and other drugs had bad 
side effects. The crime is that people like me can't get it legally."

Floridians could vote for the first time next year to allow marijuana 
for medical use. A petition drive, started last week by an Orlando 
woman whose father has Parkinson's disease, would make the drug legal 
for any condition as prescribed by a doctor.

The last time such an organized effort to legalize marijuana occurred 
in Florida was 1997, just one year after California became the first 
state to legalize medical marijuana. But in Florida the petitioners 
fell hundreds of thousands of signatures short of getting to a state 

This time the movement faces some of the same roadblocks, such as 
opposition from law enforcement and a lack of support by the majority 
of the medical community.

But the climate has become more favorable in ways that could shift the balance.

A dozen other states have approved medical marijuana since Florida 
last tried to get it on the ballot, and four state legislatures are 
currently considering proposals.

Federal law, while it has prohibited marijuana since 1937, is also 
shifting: Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal 
government would stop raiding marijuana distributors in states where 
it is legal.

And Florida's proponents, People United For Medical Marijuana, hope 
they can make the argument that legalizing the drug could create tax 
revenue and jobs to lift the state economy. Kim Russell, the founder, 
suggested $200 million a year could be gained in tax revenue.

In every state where medical marijuana has been on the ballot it has 
been successful, with the exception of South Dakota, where it barely 
lost with 48 percent of the vote. The challenge in Florida will be 
slightly steeper because the state requires a 60 percent majority vote.

Getting the proposal on the ballot remains the biggest concern for 
proponents. The state political action group, People United for 
Medical Marijuana, needs to collect 676,811 signatures from 
registered voters in 10 months.

Jordan and her husband, Bob, collected signatures back in 1997 on 
Manatee Avenue and said it was "nearly impossible" to get even 25 a 
day, and that many people were scared to sign their names to a 
document linking them to marijuana.

Instead of relying on sick people or patient advocates to get the 
word out, Russell is focusing on college students and social 
networking Web sites such as Facebook -- a tactic that could either 
help mobilize a statewide army or provide an easy target for opponents.

One of the main arguments against legalizing medical marijuana is 
that the effort is a veiled move to improve access to the drug for 
anyone who wants it. Bill Janes, director of Florida's Office of Drug 
Control, and the Florida Sheriff's Association have already come out 
against it.

"When we increase the availability of marijuana we increase the 
availability for young people," Janes said. "What this petition 
doesn't address is how the marijuana will be controlled. Will we just 
allow random growing of marijuana?"

More than 4,800 people, many of them college students, have joined 
the Facebook page in support of the petition, which the Florida 
Division of Elections recently approved, and Russell said hundreds of 
students at campuses around the state have agreed to pass petitions. 
The campaign manager is Joshua Giesegh, a 20-year-old who said he is 
taking the year off from University of Central Florida to focus on 
marijuana advocacy. He is also a proponent of legalizing the drug for 
recreational use.

"I used to be one of those people who believed all the lies about 
marijuana that you learn in D.A.R.E," an antidrug program offered in 
schools, Giesegh said in a phone interview. "Then I watched my 
grandpa die of cancer. He wouldn't eat anything. I don't want anyone 
else to suffer like that."

People United For Medical Marijuana is not affiliated with national 
or professional fundraising organizations, and Russell said raising 
money will be the biggest challenge. She estimates they need up to $5 
million for advertising and administrative costs, declining to say 
how much has been raised so far.

In the drive for signatures, state government leaders could 
potentially pose a threat, as they have generally grown less tolerant 
of marijuana. Last year the Legislature voted to strengthen laws 
against illegal growers. Janes said the tax revenue estimates by the 
petitioners were overblown and assumed use of the drug would become widespread.

Florida's petition leaves it to the Legislature to decide how to 
regulate distribution and sale of the drug. While California's 
bare-bones law has led to what some critics say is overprescription 
of marijuana, more current laws, such as the one that recently passed 
in Michigan, have guidelines meant to ensure only the truly ill will 
be able to get it.

In California, marijuana is sold in private shops called 
dispensaries. In other states patients with prescriptions for 
marijuana are required to carry ID cards, and it is only allowed to 
be grown by the patient or a designated caregiver.

Medically speaking, studies have shown benefits from marijuana, 
particularly for glaucoma and tremors. It has also been shown to 
increase appetite and alleviate the nausea caused by cancer treatments.

But the major medical associations have stopped short of endorsing 
it. The American Medical Association in November reconfirmed its 
decade-old policy that more research was needed. But it did assign a 
task force to take a closer look.

Dr. Jameel Audeh, a Sarasota oncologist, said back in 1985 when he 
was in training, marijuana was one of the best ways to relieve nausea 
in cancer patients. But now there are legal drugs he said work as 
well, including a legalized pill containing a synthetic version of 
the ingredient found in marijuana, THC. The potential health problems 
caused by marijuana, such as lung damage, outweigh the need for it, Audeh said.

"For cancer patients, this would only be needed for a very narrow 
group, if anyone, and I'm not sure that justifies making it legal 
because of all the other problems it would cause," Audeh said.

A terminally ill cancer patient in Sarasota, who asked not to be 
identified because he does not want to be targeted by police, 
believes marijuana has kept him alive two years longer than doctors 
expected. He does not grow it himself because of the risk of getting caught.

Instead he relies on gifts from friends or dealers who charge up to 
$100 a week. Mainly the drug helps with his mood and appetite, he 
said. The cancer started in his esophagus and spread to his lungs, 
stomach and liver. When smoking marijuana became painful because it 
made him cough, a friend made a vaporizer from a heat gun and a plastic bag.

"Cancer is a fight against appetite and keeping weight on," he said 
in an interview at his home. "If you can keep the weight on you can 
stay alive longer."

To anyone who thinks it should be illegal, he urges compassion. He is 
61 and has two children. At just over 5-foot-10, he weighs only 145 pounds.

"It gives me a quality of life I wouldn't have without it.
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