In the most visible success for drug policy reform in decades, voters passed ballot initiatives for medical marijuana in California, and overall medicalization and sentencing reform in Arizona. 4,870,822 Californians voted for Prop. 215, as compared with 4,675,552 votes for Clinton and 3,444,493 for Dole. Nine months later, the federal government still blocks full legal access to medical marijuana for all but eight patients remaining in a defunct program. But the first cracks in the government's intransigence may have recently appeared.
In early August, after taking five months to complete a report that NIDA Director Alan Leshner had promised would be done in four weeks, the National Institutes of Health released the report of a scientists' panel - convened for an NIH medical marijuana conference on Feb. 19-20 - evaluating the evidence on medical marijuana. The NIH press release and report this month admitted to the existence of scientific evidence supporting the medical efficacy of marijuana, and recommended that further research be conducted before.
The transcript of the Feb. conference itself, however, paints a different picture. Despite the fact that scientists known to be supportive of medical marijuana were excluded from the panel, many of the panelists' remarks were far more supportive and positive in tone than NIH's recent grudging statement. (See page 3.) Dave Fratello, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, declared "This report completes an about-face by the federal government in its attitude toward medical marijuana research. For a decade or more, researchers have known it was pointless to even try to get federal approval for studies that might suggest marijuana is beneficial. This report puts several prestigious people's reputations on the line. It's time now for the follow-through this panel has clearly urged."
The several month delay preceding release of the NIH report has fueled suspicions that the government's call for research may be a stalling tactic rather than a legitimate attempt to move the issue forward. "These days federal officials are trying to deflect pressure to give patients access to marijuana by pointing to the need for more clinical research," said Fratello, in response to an August 7th editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which Dr. George Annas, professor in the schools of Medicine and Public Health at Boston University, called for immediate access for patients in addition to the funding of research.
In the wake of Prop. 215, medical marijuana patients have had varying success in securing their medical rights. In Washington State, the Supreme Court rejected the claim by bone cancer patient Ralph Seeley that his constitutional rights were being violated by state law which allows his doctor to prescribe narcotics but not marijuana to relieve his suffering. The 8-1 decision stated that the government's authority to protect its citizens outweighs a cancer patient's right to relieve his pain. The ruling overturned a lower court decision.
In what could be termed a double victory for proponents of Proposition 215, a California appeals court threw out the pre-215 conviction of Sudi Trippet and ordered that she be granted a new trial. The 1st District Court of Appeals said that standard legal principles allowed defendants to take advantage of favorable changes in the law while their appeals were pending. Trippet, who had attempted to raise a medical necessity defense prior to the passage of the initiative, had been sentenced to six months in jail - with credit for 51 days already served - for possessing and transporting about two pounds of marijuana. The court further ruled that although Prop 215 didn't make specific allowance for the transporting of marijuana, "the voters could not have intended that a dying cancer patient's primary caregiver could be subject to criminal sanctions for carrying otherwise legally cultivated and possessed marijuana down a hallway to the patient's room."
Last year, The Activist Guide printed a letter from Allen Helmers, a 49 year old medical marijuana patient in Iowa who was facing prosecution. On July 15th the Waterloo Courier reported that Helmers will not go to jail for testing positive for THC and, in addition, will be allowed to continue using marijuana, despite being on probation for possession with intent to deliver and failing to have an Iowa drug tax stamp. Helmers suffers from fibromyalgia as well as from back pain related to a 1994 accident in which his motorcycle was struck by a drunk driver. District Court Judge Jon Fister ruled that "the defendant's probation should not be adversely affected for want of a medical prescription which he could legally obtain in Iowa but for the threat of federal prosecution faced by his physician." Assistant County Attorney Tony Janney argued that "Through all my research... I have found no credible evidence saying (marijuana) has any medical effect." Helmers will remain under supervised probation.
While medical marijuana research stalls in this country, scientists have undertaken to move it forward elsewhere. On August 18th, the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, announced that their academic hospital would begin research on the medical benefits of marijuana on spasticity related to Multiple Sclerosis (MS). According to Dr. J. de Keyser MD, professor of neurology, "We have conventional medication to fight these spasms but they all stop to work after some time after which we can do nothing to help." Citing increasing numbers of patients who have come to the hospital reporting significant improvement with the use of smoked marijuana, especially in the reduction of painful night spasms which deprive patients of sleep, de Keyser reports that using marijuana has apparently "increased the quality of their life substantially." He went on to say, "When marijuana shows to be of therapeutic value we should work with great dedication to develop it further."
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