Medical marijuana gets new supporter

Howard horse farmer with cancer says drug should be available

November 27, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Darrell Putman wants everyone to know he is not a worn-out hippie.

He was a Green Beret. He's a registered Republican and a prosperous western Howard County horse farm owner. And he has never owned a tie-dyed shirt. Putman, 49, explains all this while sitting on the couch in his living room and tugging on the tubes attached to his arm.

It's important that people know his past, his love of his country and his conservative political views. Otherwise, they will probably dismiss his proposal, which has gained the support of the Howard County Farm Bureau as well as a Republican state legislator, to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes.

"Baby boomers, those are the people who I want to reach," he says. "These are the people who must think I am something left over from the '60s. Some draft card-burning, flag-burning hippie."

Putman, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserve and father of two young girls, is fighting cancer. If he survives, he will give some credit to the marijuana he smokes illegally.

About a year ago, Putman was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After the second round of chemotherapy treatment, which made him nauseous and weak, his weight started to drop. By August, he had lost 43 pounds and weighed 152 pounds.

Putman and his doctor were worried -- he was scheduled in October to have a grueling treatment called stem-cell transplant that could save his life. But he couldn't have the treatment unless he gained some weight. And the mere sight of food made him want to vomit.

A friend visiting Putman on his 117-acre farm in Lisbon, Sundance Equestrian Center, had an idea.

"He could see how I looked and that I couldn't eat," Putman says. "He asked me if I would like to smoke some marijuana, and I said, `Hell, yes.' "

Made him hungry

Putman acknowledges he smoked marijuana while he was in Vietnam, but it wasn't a habit he continued back home. He remembered how it made him hungry then. He hoped it would now.

It didn't right away. But little by little, he did start to eat -- some Jell-O, a cinnamon bun, even a pork chop. That was in August. By October, when he was to have the stem cell transplant, he had gained 21 pounds.

"I told my doctor that I smoked marijuana, and his words were to do whatever it took to eat," he says.

In September, Putman, who sits on the board of directors of the Howard County Farm Bureau, asked the bureau to endorse the idea of legalizing the drug for use in medical cases.

"You should have seen the looks on the faces around the table," he said. "But I want doctors to be able to decide what my treatment should be. Not politicians who haven't gone to medical school."

In a voice vote a few weeks later, the board of directors agreed to support decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes and took the idea to the Maryland Farm Bureau. Although it agreed to discuss the topic in coming years, the state group declined to lobby for a bill.

"We all felt that there was concern" for Putman and others who are sick, said Charles C. Feaga, president of the county Farm Bureau and a member of the state Farm Bureau board of directors.

"But the downside was that we are afraid to promote something that is illegal," he said. "The Farm Bureau is very tough on drugs. We worried about how it could be supervised and how it could be controlled."

Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Republican who represents Baltimore County and part of Howard County, heard of Putman's problem and has agreed to introduce a bill.

Murphy said he has pursued the issue informally in the past, but this year he hopes to gain some support for it. He thinks there are many people in Maryland like Putman who are suffering needlessly. If it would help someone in his family, he wouldn't hesitate to grow it himself, he said.

"I want to do something so that these people would be left alone, and they would not have to go through the arrest process," Murphy said.

First hurdle

Six states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Oregon and Washington -- have legalized the drug for medical purposes. Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., said that to gain the support of law enforcement officials, any legislation should remove the criminal penalty for using and growing marijuana and provide a way that users can prove they are ill when police arrive at their doors. It also ought to have a provision protecting caregivers who might be bringing a patient the drug, he said.

While the first hurdle is local law enforcement, Thomas said, the real problem is federal law.

"Traditionally, no matter what the state law is, federal law makes possessing even one marijuana cigarette illegal," Thomas said. "But the good news is that the federal government doesn't have the resources to go after these people."

Charles Tomaszewski, a spokesman at the Baltimore field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said that while they don't condone any use of the drug, DEA agents focus beyond the low-level users.

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