In 2007, more than 775,000 people were arrested in the United States for possession of marijuana. In that same year, four people received their supply of the very same drug from the U.S. government.
Elvy Musikka was one of them.
Musikka, a 66-year-old Eugene resident by way of Florida, each year receives several tins, each containing 300 marijuana cigarettes grown by the federal government at the University of Mississippi.
She was the third person, and the first woman, to qualify to receive the government-grown product.
She did so following an arrest for growing marijuana, and a subsequent court case where her doctors testified that, unless Musikka was allowed access to marijuana, she would go blind.
“I wanted to go to court because I really don’t believe there is any government that has the right to demand blindness and suffering from their patients,” Musikka said. “That’s who they’re supposed to protect.”
Since moving to Oregon in 2005, Musikka has participated in the public debate over Oregon’s medical marijuana law. In this year’s legislative session, 14 bills are up for consideration in the House and Senate.
Musikka first encountered the medicinal effects of marijuana in 1975, when she was diagnosed with glaucoma. A doctor advised Musikka, who was born with congenital cataracts, to try using marijuana after she reacted poorly to other available treatments.
Initially, the thought of using marijuana medicinally frightened Musikka. She had never used the drug because she considered it dangerous. But soon after getting some, she found that it helped ease her pain more than any other treatment.
She continued to smoke it, but lack of funds made it difficult for her to always have a supply on hand.
So she decided to start growing.
With regular use of the drug, Musikka saw her intraocular pressures — the amount of fluid that nourishes an eye’s cornea, iris and lens — fall to a low enough level that she was able to undergo a successful corneal transplant. She continued to smoke the marijuana to help ease the pain associated with her glaucoma.
A pesky neighbor disrupted her recovery.
“There was only one kid I ever got accosted by. He lived right next door to me, jumped the fence and stole my plants every time I was growing something,” she said, referring to when she lived in Florida. “He knew if I called the cops I’d be the one going to jail.”
After smoking marijuana illegally for 12 years, Musikka in 1987 went in for one of her many eye surgeries. This one, she said, went horribly wrong. She lost vision in her left eye, her better eye.
The next year, she was arrested for growing marijuana. Her arrest came around the time she applied to the Compassionate Investigative New Drug Program, run by the Food and Drug Administration.
At the time, only two patients had taken advantage of the program. Robert Randall beat charges of marijuana cultivation after his legal team argued that marijuana was a medical necessity to help with his glaucoma. After a successful defense in 1976, Randall sued the federal government in a case that ultimately led to the creation of the Compassionate IND Program.
Irvin Rosenfeld entered the program in 1983 to combat a rare congenital disease.
Following her trial, Musikka in 1988 became the first woman in the program. The National Institute on Drug Abuse ran the Mississippi-based operation.
The institute “has continued to grow cannabis in order to provide a contamination-free source of cannabis material with consistent and predictable potency for use in biomedical research,” spokeswoman Stephanie Older said in an e-mail. “NIDA has remained its only legal source.”
Four years after Musikka joined the program, it was suspended by the first Bush administration. But existing participants still received medicine from the government.
Musikka said her dissatisfaction with the quality of the product she received from the federal government, along with Oregon’s liberal medical marijuana law, brought her out West. She first visited in 1998 when Measure 67, which allows patients with certain medical needs to grow and consume marijuana, was placed on the ballot. It passed with 56 percent of the vote, and today provides 21,500 Oregonians with legal access to marijuana to ease their pain or debilitating medical conditions.
The upcoming bills range from those that would toughen the requirements for medical marijuana to those that would relax them further.
Medical marijuana law in the state could change a lot this year, said Don Bishoff, an aide to Springfield Sen. Bill Morrisette. “Things are in a giant state of flux,” he said. Morrisette is chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee and sponsor of Senate Bill 388, which would tighten up rules on caregivers of medical marijuana patients, and further clarify the quantities of marijuana plants and their more concentrated derivative, hashish, that patients can possess.
Musikka, who has toured the United States and Europe as a speaker for medical marijuana laws, is primarily concerned with two bills that designate who in the state could grow medical marijuana for patients. She opposes a state-operated growing operation, like the one proposed in House Bill 3247, because of the poor quality of marijuana she said she received from the federal government.
She said the product she receives from the government is out of date: Her current tin has a production date of 1996 on the label.
She prefers a series of dispensaries that would be cultivated by licensed growers. Voter Power, an organization that lobbies for marijuana policies, proposes a similar kind of dispensary system in Senate Bill 812. No matter how the bills turn out, Musikka said she will continue to speak out for the rights of people whose illnesses can be combated with the use of medical marijuana.
“My whole fight is to make sure that patients have dignity, and most of all have their medicine — none of this having to grovel to everybody to get some pot because there’s nowhere to go,” she said.
By Nat Levy
March 15, 2009