Chronic-pain sufferers applaud voter-passed measure, but police predict problems ahead
PAW PAW, Mich.—At first glance they look like old pals, maybe a bunch from the Rotary Club leisurely gabbing away over the hamburger special, making the waitress work overtime for her tip.
But these guys are different. Their eyes, their fidgeting and their restlessness betray a shared bond of chronic pain, sleepless nights, depression and a reliance on heavy-duty prescription drugs. Around this lunchtime table, they talk about the only thing that gives them a measure of peace, the only thing that, for perhaps a few hours, sets them free: marijuana.
They've been smoking or eating marijuana for years—privately and illegally. And now, because Michigan voters approved marijuana use for the treatment of certain serious maladies, Bob White soon will be able to get himself together in his Three Rivers home "without having to draw the shades."
Legalized medical marijuana is about to make its debut in Michigan, which becomes the 13th state and the first between the Rockies and the East Coast to embrace the controversial pain treatment. In a vote last November that defied the culture war/reefer madness connotation to the illegal drug, 63 percent of the state's voters—and a majority in every county—said yes to medical marijuana. The measure collected 250,000 more votes than Barack Obama, who won the state easily.
"This shows that, bottom line, medical use of marijuana is not very controversial with the public," said Wendy Chapkis, co-author of "Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine."
"Politicians are afraid to look soft on drugs, but the public understands that cannabis is not a problem for medical use," Chapkis said.
The police disagree, and so do many politicians. In a change in federal policy, the Justice Department this week said it will go after California's medical marijuana distributors only if they violate federal and state laws. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) warned Thursday that such a policy will encourage use of harder drugs.
Opponents appear to be a minority protest against a movement gaining momentum. In the wake of the Michigan vote, legislatures in other states, including Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey, are advancing bills to legalize the medical use of marijuana, and Michigan will be watched carefully to see how it works for people like the men who recently sat around a table at a west Michigan diner.
There is no sense of euphoria among the men, each weary from grinding pain. Their maladies include cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, neck, back and spinal problems, nerve disorders, depression and sleep apnea, for which they take a cabinetful of prescription painkillers and other medications. Marijuana provides only temporary relief. For them, marijuana is not the ticket to a better life, but to a temporarily less difficult one.
Some, like bleary-eyed Bill Kelly, who grew up in a conservative family, came to it apprehensively. Kelly, 26, suffers from nerve disorders and depression. His foot went numb over lunch.
"It got to the point where my psychiatrist was my drug dealer," said Kelly, who said a turning point for him was when his doctor prescribed anti-psychotic drugs "and all I saw was red and green colors." The Kalamazoo man said he started smoking marijuana in the past year.
Technically, medical marijuana became legal in Michigan in December, a month after the public vote. The law takes full effect in April, when doctors begin receiving applications from patients seeking authorization to use marijuana for illnesses such as cancer, HIV-AIDS, glaucoma and other maladies that provoke chronic pain. Once they receive cards authorizing marijuana use, patients can grow their own—up to 12 plants—or designate a "caregiver" who will grow marijuana for them. Unlike California, there will be no public dispensaries that sell marijuana.
But there are legal holes and inconsistencies in the law that, in many ways, will likely preserve the underground nature of marijuana use. Patients can legally buy marijuana on the street, but sellers can be prosecuted. Although patients can grow their own plants, they cannot legally obtain the seeds to grow them. Medical doctors are not required to participate. And, despite the imprimatur of legality from the state of Michigan, there is nothing in the law to protect medical marijuana patients from being dismissed by their employer for using marijuana.
Ron Stephens lost his job in 2007 after a urine test detected marijuana. Stephens, 50, suffers from depression and a chronic neck disorder that limits his neck, shoulder and arm movements. He's undergone a spinal fusion operation, has lost the use of his right hand and cannot sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes. He spent a decade taking prescribed painkillers, including Vicodin, Percocet, and the synthetic narcotic methadone, which he took for two years.
"Somehow it was OK for me to show up for work with all those drugs in me," said Stephens, who asked that his hometown not be identified. "Marijuana carries such a stigma. It's so ... stupid."
Stephens is now growing his own marijuana, out of economic necessity, given its $125- to $300-per-ounce cost, he said. He built his own "grow room" with high-powered lights and reflective paper on the walls, which is really silver Christmas wrapping.
The grow-it-yourself decision presents a big problem because it puts patients at risk of break-ins and theft, said Greg Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, which led the successful ballot campaign.
So-called "grow-rippers" are only part of the concern of the police, who predict the law will ignite widespread marijuana abuse.
"You can call it medical marijuana, but this is the nose under the tent to the legalization of marijuana," said George Basar, chief of police in Howell and president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. "My biggest fear is large, sophisticated growing operations and, eventually, storefront operations, which will lead to narcotics robberies.
"I think what we've done here is taken the pot needs of a small segment of the population and blew the door wide-open to lots of others," Basar added.
Some supporters of the new law acknowledge the potential for abuse. Bob White, who suffers from myasthenia gravis, a muscle wasting disease, and arthritis of the back and knees, predicted "a few idiots will abuse it." John Targowski, a criminal defense attorney in Kalamazoo who specializes in drug cases, said he worries that "opponents will succeed in convincing people that it is a Trojan horse for legalization."
Targowski, 31, is a paraplegic who used cannabis under California's medical marijuana law when he practiced in that state. He cautions against letting opponents define the law as a boon for bearded hippies and potheads. "This isn't about people smoking joints, but I'm afraid it could turn into a culture war instead of a rational scientific discussion," Targowski said.
The public seems to be miles ahead of the political establishment on the issue. Eleven of the 13 states that have approved medical marijuana have done so through public referendums, not the legislative process.
Majorie Russell, a professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, said the measure passed in Michigan because large numbers of Baby Boomers either have personal experience or know someone who has gone through chemotherapy or suffers from chronic pain. "That changed a lot of attitudes," Russell said.
That debate is not on the mind of Jack Hemsworth, who suffers from cancer and depression and did not want his hometown identified. The news media are to blame for portraying marijuana as "Reefer Madness," he said. The issue that should be discussed, Hemsworth said, is choosing addiction to damaging prescription painkillers or embracing a drug, marijuana, that makes you—if only for a while—functional.
To him, there is nothing to debate.
"If you can escape time, that is bliss," said Hemsworth, who, just a few minutes later, was doubled over by a severe spasm in his left hand.
By Tim Jones
March 20, 2009