U.S. resists marijuana for the sick

Patients with AIDS, cancer press for exceptions to ban

States reforming own laws

May 04, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Paul Boone says he never intended to start smoking marijuana. But last summer, when the cancer that was attacking his liver made him so nauseated that he lost 40 pounds, he became desperate.

So the 35-year-old computer consultant searched the Internet for a local head shop. He drove to Fells Point, bought two pipes and called a friend who had offered to find marijuana for him. In September, when he lighted up for the first time, the relief was almost instant, he says.

"I couldn't believe how fast it stopped my nausea," says the Harford County resident, who has since regained 20 pounds despite six rounds of chemotherapy. "I still can't believe it works. I didn't believe it at the time."

Boone is one of many patients in Maryland and across the country who say they have come to depend on marijuana as part of their treatment. Cancer patients smoke it to cope with the effects of chemotherapy, AIDS patients to stimulate hunger and gain weight, and people suffering from neuromuscular disorders to ease pain and muscle spasms.

The growing demand of such patients for marijuana has led to a striking reform of state criminal laws. In the past five years, eight states have approved measures allowing patients with certain medical conditions to smoke marijuana under a doctor's supervision. Legislatures in five other states, including Maryland, have begun to consider the matter.

But the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning that its use is a crime under any circumstances. And in a case pending before the Supreme Court, the government is trying to undercut the state measures and put an end to the medical use of pot.

The case involves six "cannabis clubs" that sprang up in California after the approval of Proposition 215, the first of the state initiatives to legalize medical marijuana. Started by local activists, the clubs began growing marijuana and selling it to patients whose doctors had cleared them to use the drug.

Local officials gave their blessing to that arrangement, and county prosecutors agreed not to interfere. But the Justice Department sued three years ago to shut the clubs, saying their activities violated federal laws against possessing or distributing marijuana.

A U.S. district judge initially granted the government's request. But after being reversed by an appeals court, he ruled that the clubs could continue to serve patients who faced imminent harm and had no other choice. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which will probably issue a decision by early summer.

The stakes are high. If the court sides with the government, it will significantly disrupt the medical marijuana movement. Though the case involves only the right of clubs to distribute marijuana - not the right of patients to smoke it - closing the clubs would leave patients with no legitimate source.

If the court rules for the clubs, it could put a stamp of legitimacy on medical marijuana. It could also rejuvenate efforts to legalize its use for patients nationwide.

"It would be tremendous," says Alan St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "It would galvanize and institutionalize the concept that marijuana is medicine."

When the case was argued before the Supreme Court last month, the justices sent conflicting signals. A few appeared sympathetic to the claim that marijuana is sometimes medically necessary, but others seemed skeptical. And some justices, while allowing that the drug might have benefits, questioned whether it was possible to distinguish between those patients who need it and those who simply enjoy it.

The dispute among the justices reflects a larger societal rift. Since rising to national attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the medical use of marijuana has been vigorously debated.

Supporters say marijuana is an ancient remedy that has been classified unwisely as a dangerous drug. They say it stops nausea, stimulates hunger, relieves pain and soothes nerves, all of which can help the seriously ill cope with their diseases and the often brutal treatments for them.

They also argue that marijuana is valuable in treating glaucoma, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Most opponents don't deny that marijuana provides benefits. A study commissioned by the federal government concluded that the drug has "potential therapeutic value." But they argue that any benefits are outweighed by other considerations.

For one thing, critics say, smoking marijuana - like smoking tobacco - can lead to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

They also argue that marijuana has undesirable side effects, such as paranoia and dizziness.

Their biggest fear is that the medical use of marijuana would increase drug use in general. They express particular concern that if children saw adults smoking pot to treat illnesses, they would be encouraged to smoke it themselves.

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