TAKING UP THE FIGHT TO PROTECT MEDICAL MARIJUANA
Proposed ballot meausre would undo existing law; local woman stricken with a variety of maladies vows to fight the legislation
Newberg resident Pamela Sterling is not ashamed of her drug use. Due to chronic illness, the 43-year-old former registered nurse enrolled four years ago in Oregon's medical marijuana program, one of 231 current members in Yamhill County.
Approved by voters in 1998, participants are issued cards identifying them as members on the recommendation of a qualified doctor -- a M.D. or osteopath ( D.O. ) -- who has diagnosed them with a qualifying condition such as glaucoma, cancer, Alzheimer's disease or chronic pain. Enrollment allows members to possess and use marijuana, as well as to grow up to seven marijuana plants for personal use.
"I used to work as a labor and delivery ( OB/GYN ) nurse and I injured my neck and shoulder ( on a difficult birth )," Sterling said. "I have a lot of muscle tremors and spasms and I used to be on a lot of pills, but medical marijuana has taken the place of that."
Sterling is not alone in her experience. A 2004 study at the University of California in San Francisco has shown that medical marijuana can lower, by up to half, a patient's narcotics use.
"They had me on prescription painkillers like Dilaudid and Xanax, and then anti-Parkinson's medication to deal with the side effects from those," she said. "At one point they suggested putting me on methadone. I said no. It had gone too far."
But her desire to avoid using potentially addictive, opiate-based medication was not the only reason Sterling turned to medical marijuana. She was also diagnosed with coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an auto-immune disorder in which a patient's digestive system is unable to digest wheat or wheat gluten ( found in many foods ), instead causing inflammation and damage to the intestines.
Genetic in origin, coeliac disease can often be controlled through a wheat-free diet ( substituting rice, corn or potatoes ). But following a visit to Brazil for a medical conference, where she caught intestinal parasites from drinking water, Sterling's digestive issues took a dramatic turn for the worse.
"I used to weigh well over 250 ( pounds ), I'm now down to 115 -- for a while, I was literally starving," she said. "I was living in a duplex at the time and my neighbor would hear me ( vomiting ) in the bathroom through the wall. They brought some weed over and suggested I try it. I'd grown up in southeast Missouri and never even smoked a cigarette 'til I was in my 30s -- but it worked really well to reduce my symptoms."
So when Sterling heard that former state representative and political activist Kevin Mannix ( R-Salem ) was preparing an initiative that would replace Oregon's medical marijuana program with synthetic alternatives, she decided to speak out.
"I'm not lighting a joint and trying to stick it in someone else's mouth," she said. "I only want the right to medicate myself the way my physicians and I see fit."
Mannix' proposal, titled "The Oregon Crimefighting Act of 2008," addresses many more issues than medical marijuana. Among its provisions are a program of tax credits to fund methamphetamine investigation and treatment; stiffer sentences for repeat arrests for drunk driving or sexual offenses; and increasing law enforcement.
But the act would also require the use of Marinol or Cesamet -- pills containing a synthetic form of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana -- to be used in place of medical marijuana.
This change would "reduce abuse of the system currently in place," the act states, and the synthetic alternatives would be covered under the Oregon Health Plan.
"I think that the legislature has failed to address these issues," Mannix said. "This is about a complete reform of Oregon's criminal justice system -- along with the initiatives 40 and 41 that I've already filed, which will establish mandatory minimum sentencing and dedicate 15 percent of lottery proceeds to law enforcement."
Although Mannix attempted to overturn the medical marijuana act as a state legislator in 1999, "This initiative is clearly not about just that," he said.
"There needs to be an alternative for people suffering from debilitating diseases, but it's very clear that the issue ( of abusing the current program ) needs to be addressed," he said. "This is very novel -- no other state has offered to fully fund a prescription program to take medical marijuana's place."
But data showing widespread abuse of the program is difficult to come by. The Portland Police Bureau investigated 30 cases of illegal sales or fraudulent enrollment by participants -- among more than 2,000 enrolled members in Multnomah County.
"The state police have just started putting together data this year," said Polk County Sheriff Bob Wolfe, who serves on the Oregon State Sheriff's Association legislative committee. "We've had a few cases in the county where cardholders are growing more than their allotment. We've also had cases where people break in and steal their plants. But the sheriff's association doesn't have a position on the act as yet -- if it gets on the ballot, we'll weigh in."
"Don't put us in the same category as meth users," Sterling said. "I've heard of people having a card who get busted with 300 plants -- but people also sell Xanax and morphine on the street. As a nurse, I've seen much more abuse of prescription medications than in this program."
Sterling is also concerned that the details of Mannix's proposed initiative are unworkable. Members of the medical marijuana program must supply the plant themselves and Sterling said members often trade seeds or cuttings -- "there's no money exchanged." Using synthetic alternatives, however, could prove expensive for Oregon.
"A Marinol prescription runs between $800 and $1,000 a month, depending on the dosage," she said. "There's over 14,000 patients enrolled in the medical marijuana program, according to the state's figures. If just half of the patients are low-income or even just lacking health insurance, that's $6 million per month that the state would have to pay. Mannix wants to create a deficit to kill the program."
Moreover, Sterling added, being forced to use a synthetic pill substitute would harm her personally.
"I can't absorb the pill due to my digestive issues. That's the whole issue with Marinol -- those prescription painkillers I still take are in suppository or patch form," she said. "A lot of people ( using medical marijuana ) with Crohn's disease or other intestinal conditions have the same problem."
While the medical marijuana program has been controversial since its inception, Sterling said that open discussion is the solution.
"I have three kids, ages 19, 21, and 24, and they know I smoke marijuana -- they know I'm ill and they've seen the symptoms," she said. "The fear comes with lack of knowledge, lack of education. That's what I'm trying to correct."