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Drug Officials Vexed by Five States' Initiatives
On Medical Marijuana

Naftali Bendavid
Chicago Tribune
October 28, 1998

Renee Emry walked into the office of Rep. Bill McCollum last
month and did something rarely seen in a congressional suite: She lit up a marijuana cigarette.

Emry, 38, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and she wanted to urge McCollum, a Florida Republican, to support legalization of
marijuana as medicine for patients like her.

"I find that when I medicate appropriately, it calms my nerves, so I fired up a fatty,"said Emry, who came to the Capitol from Ann Arbor, Mich., on behalf of a group called the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not like I was trying to be rude, crude and totally uncalled for. I was there to educate the man."

Whisked away by Capitol police, Emry faces trial on a drug
charge in December.

Not so easily ushered away is the issue. Medical marijuana
initiatives may be the first proposals for relaxing the drug laws
that have gained significant support since the war on drugs began in earnest in the early 1980s.

Voters in California and Arizona approved medical marijuana
initiatives two years ago. Five more Western states and the
District of Columbia will vote on similar proposals Tuesday, and
opinion polls released by supporters this week suggest they will
win handily.

While those polls might be suspect, the public does face a real
prospect of waking up after Election Day to find that medical
marijuana is legal, at least in theory, in seven states containing
about one-fifth of the population.

Police, prosecutors and federal officials are frustrated. The
initiatives' popularity suggests that many people are rejecting the message that marijuana is a dangerous gateway to stronger drugs and instead see marijuana as potentially therapeutic.

"This is a way to legally introduce people to possibly a lifetime of
drug abuse," said John Justice, a South Carolina prosecutor who
heads the National District Attorneys Association. "The drug
problem from stem to stern in this country is tremendous, and I
knew a judge who used to call marijuana `the kindergarten of the drug industry.' "

The proposals' supporters hope they are establishing a beachhead and that eventually marijuana will be legally available from doctors nationwide.

The initiatives' popularity raises the question of how, after years
of anti-drug ads and horror stories, so many people still view
marijuana as benign.

If some or all of the initiatives pass next week in Washington,
Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska and the District of Columbia,
political leaders and police will have to deal with the fact that the new state laws are at odds with federal law.

"Legally there is little significance if these things pass, but
politically there is a lot of significance," said Eric Sterling,
president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Members of
Congress might start to re-evaluate their position."

It is not entirely an accident that medical marijuana is catching on now. A group called Americans for Medical Rights,
headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., is pushing the crusade with small staffs in several states.

The group is bankrolled by three millionaires: financier George
Soros, insurance magnate Peter Lewis and John Sperling, who
owns a successful chain of adult education centers. The three have spent a total of a little more than $2 million on the cause.

The campaign is airing commercials that stress the theme of
compassion. An Oregon television spot, for example, shows an
avuncular doctor bemoaning his inability to help patients
suffering from chemotherapy.

"Please, let us treat you with every medicine that can help," Dr.
Rick Bayer begs viewers.

Public officials and anti-drug activists are furious at this
campaign. But there is little organized opposition or advertising
on the other side.

McCollum, who pushed through a congressional resolution
against medical marijuana, contended the drug can hurt patients
by weakening their immune systems. It is misleading for the
initiatives to suggest that marijuana would be available at the
corner drugstore, McCollum added, when in fact it would remain
illegal to sell it even if the initiatives pass.

"It is always phrased as though the doctor is going to provide a
prescription," McCollum said. "In reality, there is no prescription.
The doctor gives you a chit, and you can go down the street and
buy it from anyone."

Opponents see a sinister agenda, the legalization of all drugs,
hiding behind the mask of compassion. "They are taking the case to the voters in the most obnoxious and irresponsible way,
crafting television commercials that appeal to compassion for the terminally ill," said Sue Rusche, executive director of the anti-drug group National Families in Action. "Who doesn't have
compassion for the terminally ill?"

Behind the social question -- Is this just a way for old hippies to
push through drug legalization? -- is a medical one: Does
marijuana really have therapeutic value?

Doctors are somewhat divided. Supporters of medical marijuana
say it fights the nausea caused by chemotherapy and by AIDS
treatments, allowing some patients to keep their strength at a
crucial level. Marijuana is also said to relax the cramped and
spasmodic muscles that torment some multiple sclerosis patients.

Opponents say the evidence is far from conclusive. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as safe and effective, and the Drug Enforcement Administration lists it as a "Schedule I" drug, meaning it has no medicinal value.

Barry McCaffrey, the nation's drug czar, held a press conference
Tuesday to blast the initiatives.

"We need to leave medicine to the scientists and doctors of
America," McCaffrey said. "American medicine is the best in the
world, and it's not based on this kind of malarkey."

That, however, is not the view of Stormy Ray, a multiple sclerosis patient in Oregon. She began smoking marijuana in 1991, she aid, when her regular medicines stopped working.

``I was absolutely amazed,'' said Ray, a grandmother who said she had opposed drugs. ``It was like somebody finally found the right way to turn my body back on. It took away the nerve pain. I could not imagine anything being able to do that.''

If the initiatives do pass, that could be just the beginning of a
tangled legal battle.

In California, which passed a medical marijuana measure in 1996, legal confusion prevails. Federal authorities say they will crack down on doctors who recommend marijuana to patients, but a court has temporarily barred that crackdown.


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