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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 12:03 pm

Medical marijuana

Patient advocates believe the stars are aligned perfectly for this to be the year medical marijuana finally becomes a reality in Illinois.

Muraco Kyashna-Tocha has had five neck and back surgeries and has been dependent on marijuana for her pain since 1999.

Dennis nearly lost the lower portion of his right leg when the trencher he was working with unexpectedly hit a metal beam in the ground, causing the blade to jump up, catching the bridge of his foot and slicing his leg all the way up to the knee.

In the five-and-a-half years since his accident, he’s undergone two surgeries on his leg, one of which involved using chemicals to destroy nerves, and had an electronic stimulating device implanted near his spine to help ease sensations he describes as “pins and needles.” But none of it has worked very well.

Today, he wears a pain patch and takes three to seven 1,000-milligram Vicodin pills each day, depending on his level of discomfort. Despite his best efforts to stay off his leg by rolling around his kitchen on wheeled chairs or learning to drive with his left foot, which involves sitting with his right leg cocked over the car’s console, the pain never subsides.

So excruciating is the pain sometimes that the slightest inadvertent bump has been known to trigger uncontrollable bouts of vomiting. Once he even asked his doctor about having the leg amputated, but jettisoned the idea upon learning that “ghost pains,” which he was told could be similar to the sensation he feels now, could persist even after the appendage was removed.

Around the time of his accident, friends in California suggested he try marijuana, which contains chemicals called cannabinoids and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can relieve chronic pain and nausea associated with illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS.

Although Dennis, 50, smoked pot as a young man, even taking a trip to Amsterdam once, he gave up “partying” when he met his wife and she gave birth to their son. Nor did he want to do anything that could jeopardize his worker’s compensation suit that was pending at the time of his accident. So he waited until the case was settled.

His friends were right, he discovered. The potent type of marijuana known as hydroponic eliminated more of his pain and queasiness that all his expensive prescription pharmaceutical painkillers. Regular street-grade pot does little for his leg pain, other than providing a high.

Even though pot takes away the nauseous feeling he gets, Dennis, who requested that his full name not be printed, still gets knots in his stomach. That’s because every time he purchases, transports and smokes the drug in Illinois he knows he’s breaking the law.

Dennis, a resident of Sangamon County, says that he is ashamed to have to purchase his marijuana on the black market and is uncomfortable even uttering the word marijuana. “If you take it out of the drug dealers’ hands, it would be so much f——-g better,” mainly because the kind of pot he needs wouldn’t be nearly as expensive.

His preference would be to grow his own, but state and federal laws — and his wife — currently prohibit him from doing so. Dennis’ hope, along with that of civil libertarian and patients’-rights activists across the state, is that Illinois will soon join 13 other states that have already enacted laws permitting individuals with certain debilitating medical conditions, and who meet other criteria, to be issued a state license to possess marijuana without being subject to prosecution.

The current legislative push is being led by state Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat. Haine has sponsored the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which would allow an individual diagnosed with “a debilitating medical condition,” or that person’s caregiver, to possess up to seven dried cannabis plants and two ounces of dried usable cannabis with a state-issued ID card. The law would “sunset” after three years, when lawmakers would have to decide whether to approve it again.

The Illinois state legislature was the first in the nation to put a medicinal marijuana law on the books in the 1970s, but the state never approved the administrative rules necessary for the law to be used, and the law was never implemented. In the mid-1990s California voters enacted its medical cannabis law through a statewide ballot initiative. And since, even more socially conservative states, such as Alaska, Montana, and Ohio have beat Illinois in decriminalizing medical marijuana. This is the case even though 68 percent people in the Land of Lincoln support removing criminal penalties for sick people who use marijuana.

But after unsuccessful attempts in recent years, marijuana reform advocates believe the stars are now aligned perfectly to finally make medical cannabis a reality here. Haine, who spent 14 years as state’s attorney for Madison County, has solid law-and-order credentials himself and hails from a fairly conservative part of the state. Plus, John Cullerton, has been the biggest booster of medical marijuana in recent years, has just become Senate president.

In 2007, Cullerton’s legislation narrowly failed by a vote of 22-29 in the Senate, with eight members either not voting or voting present. JohnWalker, director of the Illinois Compassion Action Network, a coalition of pro-cannabis repeal groups, calls Haine’s bill the result of learning from mistakes in previous campaigns in Illinois and other states. One such mistake has been failing to solicit input from the law enforcement community, he says.

Why Illinois lawmakers haven’t mustered the will to move forward on this issue remains a mystery to ICAN’s Walker, an Army and National Guard veteran.

“If I knew the answer, I’d fix it today and we’d pass this sucker tomorrow,” he says. “From our earliest childhood we’re been inundated with how evil marijuana is, but until [lawmakers] have a relative who’s ill, they go through that thought process, they won’t understand.”

“There’s a ‘kill it’ culture with our politics now. It’s easier to kill something than stand up and live with it,” says Walker, whose own mother died, not from cancer, but from starvation as a result of losing her appetite, which marijuana can help. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Haine agrees that his Senate colleagues have been reticent to sign on to anything that has the whiff of marijuana legalization. But he believes he has the credibility to convince lawmakers who may be on the fence that they should get on board with the idea, which is about helping people with chronic pain.

“It’s arguable that marijuana can be destructive and unhealthy. It’s also eminently arguable that marijuana in a medical context could be a good thing,” Haine says.

Indeed the debate is often spirited to say the least. Political sensitivities aside, there are libraries of scientific data supporting and debunking claims of the benefits of marijuana. Generally, proponents argue that cannabis and its various derivatives have been used to heal by cultures on every continent since ancient times.

Much of the ammunition used by marijuana-as-medicine advocates today comes from a 1999 study completed by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine. The report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base concludes, “Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation; smoked marijuana, however, is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances.”

Marijuana “is not a completely benign substance” but a powerful drug with a variety of effects, and marijuana smoke is an important risk factor in the development of respiratory disease. While marijuana smoke delivers THC and other cannabinoids to the body, smoking it delivers harmful other substances, including most of those found in tobacco smoke, as well, the authors write.

With respect to the argument often raised by opponents that marijuana use will lead to abuse of hard narcotics, the study notes that “data on drug use progression neither support nor refute the suggestion that medical availability would increase drug abuse.”

Furthermore, the report states, cannabinoids are “promising for treating wasting syndrome in AIDS patients. Nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana.”

Nevertheless, nobody wants Illinois to become the next California, where regulation ofmedical marijuana is so lax that reports have abounded about doctors writing marijuana prescriptions for such nuisances as baldness and eczema.

So by all accounts, Illinois’ bill, in its current form, is intended to be very restrictive. “It’s not going to be some kind of Wild West where as soon as the law passes anybody who has a sliver or a hangnail can start using that claim of medical marijuana,” says Dan Linn, director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Even though his organization advocates for the legalization of marijuana for adults, he calls decriminalization a good “starting point to protect people who are suffering from different ailments and diseases.”

Although there is also hope that President Barack Obama will follow through on campaign promises that his administration will take a hard look at current drug control policy, most agree that substantive change will occur first at the state level.

Matt, another central Illinois medical marijuana user, says that if Haine’s bill is passed and medical marijuana does becomes a reality in Illinois, he plans to take his family on a road trip. As things now stand, he doesn’t want to venture too far away from home because he smokes marijuana three to four times a day and is afraid to travel with the pot.

Matt, 35, hurt his back on the job 15 years ago and approximates that he’s undergone 40 procedures since. He has been prescribed OxyContin and Vicodin, methadone, valium and lithium. But he says marijuana is the only thing that helps the pain and keeps him from vomiting.

Initially he was afraid to try pot, he says, because he is active in church.

“It was more my brain saying, no, that isn’t right. And my kids — I don’t want them to find out. But it’s gotten to the point that I don’t care. My thing this is don’t judge me, just help me.”

Like Dennis, Matt says he has no other choice in the meantime but to continue getting the pot he uses off the street.

“That’s the thing that pisses me off about the whole thing. I don’t want to go that route. Just let me grow a couple plants on my own,” he says.

“I feel like a criminal when I go in my own garage.”

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