Michael Lapihuska, a former Anniston resident, is facing a jail sentence and two years probation for bringing his prescription with him from California to Alabama when he came home for the holidays last December. The problem — his prescription was for marijuana.
Lapihuska was arrested Dec. 15, when a police officer stopped him on McClellan Boulevard near Walmart for hitch hiking. The officer searched him, found a prescription bottle of marijuana in his pocket and asked Lapihuska to take it out.
When Lapihuska complied, he was arrested for possession despite the doctor’s recommendation he presented to the officer.
“I understand that I broke the law, but the law was wrong,” Lapihuska said. “If I would have had OxyContin or Xanax, morphine, anything like that, and walking down the street, the police would have just gave me my prescriptions back and let me walk.”
The difference is the federal designation of the drug, said Leonard Nelson, a professor at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. Marijuana is a Schedule One drug under federal law, which means it is classified as carrying a high risk of abuse with no accepted medical benefit. OxyContin, on the other hand, is a Schedule Two drug, meaning it also has a high risk of abuse but has accepted medical benefits.
More people may soon find themselves in Lapihuska’s situation. Although medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, 14 states and Washington D.C., have legalized its use. That includes California, where Lapihuska’s prescription was written. A few states, including Maine, Michigan, Montana and Rhode Island, also have reciprocity, allowing medical marijuana users from other states to continue their medication in the state as long as they have a legal doctor’s order.
“You can’t prescribe (marijuana) under federal law,” Nelson said. “I’m not familiar with any precedents that would look at whether a state has the right to arrest somebody for bringing in what would be an illegal (drug) in their state but is nonetheless under a prescription. I would assume the answer would be yeah, they could do it.”
Alabama has had legislation introduced to legalize medical marijuana for the last six years, and the bill made it out of committee for the first time this past legislative session. The bill — The Michael Phillips Compassionate Care Act — includes reciprocity for medical marijuana patients.
Loretta Nall, executive director of Alabamians for Compassionate Care, has been lobbying for the bill because she firmly believes in the medical benefits of marijuana.
“We have too many people in Alabama prisons already for nonviolent drug offenses,” Nall said. “We don’t need to be wasting our scarce law enforcement dollars and tax dollars to lock up people that are sick that benefit from the use of this plant.”
There have been efforts at the federal level to get marijuana classified a Schedule Two drug, the latest in Congress. In 2009, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced HR 2835, a bill that would legalize medical marijuana under federal law. It’s an issue that has been before Congress before, but never successfully.
One reason is the continuing debate about whether marijuana has medical benefits. That’s amazing to Al Byrne, co-founder of Patients Out of Time, an organization that teaches medical professionals the clinical use of marijuana. He’s been at it since 1979.
“Our staff, if you will, is MDs, RNs,” Byrne said. “We have an amazing group of experts who have been doing it for a while.”
Marijuana has dozens of legitimate, proven medical benefits, Byrne said. He saw it first hand when his father was suffering through chemotherapy. His doctor recommended marijuana to ease the side-effects of the chemo.
“He’s sick as hell. They’ve got him on this chemotherapy which is terrible now, but it was wicked then. He went from 220 pounds to 90,” Byrne said. “After a little bit of time and work, he tried it…He stopped puking. He ate food. I saw it happen.”
Still much of the proof of marijuana’s medical benefits is either from other countries or anecdotal. That may be because of its federal classification. In 2009, the American Medical Association urged the federal government to change the classification to facilitate study of the drug.
Meanwhile, Patients Out of Time conferences are full, and give doctors and nurses acceptable continuing education credits.
“Theses (credits) are issued, if you will, under the authority of the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association and we have had this relationship with the AMA and the ANA since 2000,” Byrne said. “As far as I’m concerned, when they allowed Patients Out of Time to issue accreditation to doctors about how to use it clinically, I think they had their mind made up.”
Lapihuska is hoping his experience will help change the marijuana laws in Alabama to include medical marijuana as a prescribe-able drug.
He has been to prison in Alabama. Before he moved to California in 2009, he was arrested and imprisoned for possession of 5 grams of marijuana. Then he traveled to the Golden State to visit friends and while there he received his first legal prescription for marijuana – a prescription that he says freed him from the five prescribed drugs he was already taking for major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was life-changing, he says.
“They had me on five medications at one time, antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and tried to convince me that this was the answer,” Lapihuska said. “It wasn’t the answer.”
Lapihuska is out on bond and awaiting trial.
by Laura Camper
Star Staff Writer
Aug 18, 2010
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