Pubdate: Sat, 18 Apr 2009
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2009 The Arizona Republic
Author: Matthew Benson, The Arizona Republic
Cited: The Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


Voters OK'd Prior Efforts Only to See Them Blocked

An initiative planned for the 2010 ballot would ask Arizona voters to 
legalize medical marijuana, setting up a California-style network of 
cannabis clubs and even allow some patients to grow their own drug supply.

It's the fourth time since 1996 that state voters have been asked to 
decriminalize marijuana as a medical treatment. Local supporters, 
backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project, have their sights 
set on the 2010 general election and plan to submit ballot language 
to the Secretary of State's Office as early as next week.

The initiative would allow individuals with illnesses ranging from 
cancer to HIV/AIDS or glaucoma to seek a doctor's recommendation for 
medical marijuana, according to draft ballot language obtained by The 
Arizona Republic.

Eligible individuals would be able to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of 
the drug every 14 days from a series of non-profit outlets, known as 
dispensaries. Patients in rural areas of the state could cultivate a 
limited number of their own marijuana plants.

Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal guidelines, like 
heroin or LSD. But the initiative would shield from state prosecution 
the doctors who recommend marijuana for medical treatment, the 
dispensary workers who provide it and the patients who use it. 
Thirteen states already have legalized medical marijuana in some 
fashion, though only California has established a widespread network 
of dispensaries to distribute it.

Proponents of medical marijuana say it can relieve pain and suffering.

Supporters of the Arizona initiative say it would provide another 
treatment alternative to the desperately ill, sparing them and their 
family from having to brave the underground drug market and risk 
criminal prosecution.

"These people are facing a terrible choice," said Andrew Myers, 
campaign manager for the Arizona initiative. "It's either continue to 
suffer with debilitating effects or risk arrest and jail time."

Skeptics Voice Worry

Skeptics aren't so sure. They question the drug's medicinal benefits 
and wonder whether efforts to legalize it for the sick and dying are 
a prelude to decriminalization for everyone else in the future.

"Don't get blinded by the smokescreen," warned Rick Romley, a former 
Maricopa County attorney. "It's still a step toward legalization of 
marijuana. That's what it has been since Day 1."

Romley was in office in 1996 during the state's initial medical marijuana vote.

By a nearly 2-1 ratio, voters approved a ballot proposal that OK'd 
use of the drug for medical purposes, but lawmakers subsequently 
stripped the provision from the law.

In 1998, federal authorities threatened to revoke the license of 
physicians who prescribed the drug.

That same year, voters rejected a ballot attempt to require that the 
federal government or Congress OK the use of medical marijuana before 
it could be prescribed by a doctor.

In 2002, Arizona voters rejected an effort to decriminalize 
possession of small quantities of marijuana and make the drug 
available free of charge to patients suffering from cancer and other diseases.

Medical-marijuana supporters think the timing is right to try once 
more. They believe they've solved the past licensing issue with their 
latest initiative, which requires that patients obtain a physician's 
"recommendation," rather than a prescription, to obtain the drug.

Additionally, new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently 
indicated that federal authorities will not pursue cases involving 
medical marijuana in states that allow the practice, a reversal of 
Bush administration policy.

Backers of the initiative need to gather at least 153,000 valid 
signatures to qualify for the 2010 ballot. Myers is confident his 
group can do that and is girding for a multimillion-dollar campaign.

A Degree of Mercy

The issue of medical marijuana is personal for Ellen Terry Friedman.

In early 1988, the Tempe woman's father, Harold, was diagnosed with 
prostate cancer at the age of 70. The disease had spread to his bones.

His condition deteriorated over the next 18 months. Toward the end, 
Harold was no longer undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. He was 
under hospice care and on morphine. But he still suffered.

So, in her father's last month or so of life, Friedman said, the 
oncologist suggested the family obtain marijuana to dull Harold's 
pain and help with his nausea. She won't say how the family got the 
drug, but it did.

"It was a shocking position to be put in, let's put it that way," she 
said. "Nobody should be put in that position."

The marijuana seemed to help, Friedman said. Her father regained a 
bit of appetite. He found a degree of mercy.

"It was a horrible, painful death, but it was eased somewhat," she 
said. "We wanted him to die with the least pain, and the medical 
marijuana was an integral part of that."

Conflict Continues

Romley sympathizes with those who suffer. But he worries that some 
patients or doctors would misuse the law, especially given a 
provision in the initiative that would allow patients to obtain the 
drug if they displayed symptoms such as severe pain or seizures. What 
constitutes severe pain would be a matter for a doctor's judgment.

State Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, has similar concerns. But he's 
conflicted on the issue of medical marijuana. Although he worries 
"this is just the gateway to legalizing marijuana," Paton also has 
seen the drug used with medical benefits.

Before dying of cancer a couple of years ago, a friend of Paton's 
used marijuana to ease the suffering.

"He smoked pot because he was too sick," said Paton, chairman of the 
Senate Judiciary Committee. "He couldn't keep the (pain) pills down."

If marijuana is a legitimate medical treatment, Romley said, backers 
should seek its legalization through the health community and federal 
government, not at the ballot box.

"I just don't believe we decide what's good medicine at the ballot 
box," he said. "The vast bulk of the medical community has never 
pushed it to be a drug legalized for medicinal purposes."

Myers countered that federal drug laws continue to make medical 
research involving marijuana difficult.

And while he conceded that the national Marijuana Policy Project has 
broader aims with regard to the drug's legalization, he said the 
Arizona initiative is narrowly written with its intent solely on 
helping people fighting severe illness.

"There are 13 other states with medical-marijuana laws," Myers said. 
"None of those 13 has moved to total legalization." 
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