Kansas Considers Legalization of Medical Marijuana
By JAMES A. FUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Every two weeks Greg T. of Independence drives downtown to the city’s underbelly to buy an eighth of an ounce of pot.
He’s smoked marijuana for 37 years. He says it’s the only thing that eases the agony of his Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks his intestinal tract.
A devout Christian and former Boy Scout, the 54-year-old father of two loves his country. But for decades, he said, that country has forced him to become a criminal to survive.
Greg, who asked that his last name not be used because he fears prosecution, is one of many patients who support movements in Missouri and Kansas to legalize medical marijuana.
A groundswell has been building nationwide for similar efforts, even as the federal government vigorously prosecutes buyers and state-regulated sellers.
• Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana — six of them in the last five years.
• In November, voters in Arkansas and Massachusetts will decide whether to legalize it.
• Also next month, Colorado, Oregon and Washington will vote on expanding legalization for recreational use as well.
• Lawmakers in 15 more states, including Missouri and Kansas, are expected to introduce medical marijuana legislation in 2013 .
On Saturday, about 100 Kansas activists rallied in support of medical marijuana at the state Capitol in Topeka. Some holding signs (“Patients should not be prisoners”) and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the marijuana leaf, they listened to speakers including a doctor and several patients.
“If you are over 18 years old it is your responsibility to go sign up and try to run for those offices … and do something about this, now!” said Esau Freeman, a Wichita painter and new president of the Kansas Medical Cannabis Network — to rousing ovations.
But state laws only mean so much. With medical marijuana legal in some states, but still federally illegal, the country is in a war with itself. Federal officials have stepped up raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, Colorado and Montana, leaving a cloudy future for the state of state-sanctioned pot.
Opponents of medical marijuana call the drug addictive and dangerous and say legalizing it for medical use would create more desire for full legalization. Medical legalization also would flout Food and Drug Administration requirements to test drugs for safety and efficacy before approval.
“The process is bypassing the FDA (and) is creating medicine by popular vote, which we would not want under any other circumstances,” said Eric Voth, a Topeka internist and chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy, an alliance of physicans, scientists, attorneys and drug specialists advocating public policies that curtail illicit drugs and alcohol.
“And with marijuana you are talking about an impure substance that is unpredictable. There is such a wide variance of the strength of the marijuana on the market there is no way for patients to predict what they’re getting as (they can) with pharmaceutical-grade medication.”
Former Senate Republican majority leader Bill Frist, a physician, is an outspoken opponent of medical marijuana.
“Although I understand many believe marijuana is the most effective drug in combating their medical ailments,” he told the website ProCon.org, “I would caution against this assumption due to the lack of consistent, repeatable scientific data available to prove marijuana’s medical benefits. … I believe marijuana is a dangerous drug and that there are less dangerous medicines offering the same relief from pain and other medical symptoms.”
Don’t tell that to David Mulford of Hutchinson. Traditional medicines don’t work for him.
“It’s absolutely unconscionable that they won’t listen to what we have to say,” he said.
Spasms cause agonizing contractions in Mulford’s limbs, chest and neck. Doctors do not know what’s wrong with him. In 2001 contractions in his chest grew so bad his aorta failed. A surgeon transplanted a new aorta but told him he had less than two years to live.
That’s when Mulford turned to Mary Jane to calm the spasms.
“It saved my life,” he said. “To say marijuana is unsafe and doesn’t have a medicinal use is the single biggest lie ever perpetrated against our citizens.”
Greg T., who also uses marijuana to stop the pain of diabetic neuropathy, is allergic to the steroids and other drugs doctors have given him. They caused hallucinations and ’roid rage.
Marijuana “has been a godsend for me,” he said. It stops severe pain, vomiting and diarrhea, and helps him keep food down so he can gain weight. “I don’t want to break the law. But when you’re sick, you’ll do anything you have to do.”
Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas, doesn’t give medical marijuana bills much of a chance to become law in conservative Kansas or Missouri. Then again …
“Look at what happened with gay rights laws,” he said. “At one point you wouldn’t have given them a chance to pass either (in other states). And state lotteries? We didn’t used to have them; now they’re all over.”
The Kansas House actually passed a medical marijuana bill in 1995, only to see it fail in the Senate.
“People know patients whose symptoms have been eased by marijuana,” Loomis said. “Plus it’s potentially a huge revenue source. So if some states legalized it, taxed it and got substantial revenues and the earth didn’t end, then — who knows?”
At the same time much has changed on the medical front. Scientists around the world have stepped up research after recent findings showing the cannabinoids in marijuana can kill cells in certain cancerous tumors.
The California Medical Association, representing more than 35,000 doctors, not only has voiced support for medical marijuana but called for full legalization of cannabis itself. And after more than 70 years, the American Medical Association has reversed its stance on marijuana and urged the government to review its classification of the drug.
Currently marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin and PCP, considered to have “no accepted medical use.”
Medical marijuana supporters such as Jon Hauxwell, a retired physician from Hays, Kan., call that provably untrue.
“Neuropathic pain, common in diabetes, comes from damaged nerves,” he said. “The things we have don’t work well on it. But we have a gold-standard FDA-approved study in California that shows that cannabis is effective for neuropathic pain.”
Even former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders says marijuana has medical value.
“The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS — or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them,” she told the Providence (R.I.) Journal. “And it can do so with remarkable safety.”
Hauxwell, who spoke at Saturday’s rally in Topeka, dismisses arguments about addiction or dangers.
“The National Institute on Drug Abuse says of those who try cannabis about 9 percent eventually become dependent,” he said. “The figure for alcohol is 15 percent; cigarettes 32 percent. And if you compare cannabis to meth, meth is more toxic and more prone to abuse. But it’s actually legal to prescribe meth. There’s nothing consistent about the government’s approach to this.”
He said legislators have told him that medical marijuana is a political hot potato they’re afraid to touch for fear of being labeled “soft on drugs.”
While one of the active components in marijuana has been purified and synthesized into a legal pill called Marinol, medical marijuana advocates say it’s not as effective as the natural plant, which has more than 400 compounds.
Voth said too much is still unknown about marijuana to legalize it as a drug. He cited a recent study that showed a deterioration in cognitive function from the teens to the 30s in the brains of regular marijuana users. He also said a study showed that fatal car accidents have doubled in California since marijuana dispensaries opened in the early 2000s.
On the other hand, he said, he’s not unreasonable. He is in favor of more research on the possible medical benefits of the cannabinoids in marijuana. Still, he would never legalize weed as a drug doctors could prescribe.
Former Kansas attorney general Robert Stephan of Overland Park would.
“I get very emotional about this,” said Stephan, who, at 79, has survived multiple cancers and talked to patients who have used marijuana to ease their pain and nausea.
“It’s very upsetting. When you know people are suffering needlessly, and we can’t get the federal government to take a realistic look at this, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s ridiculous.”