Medical pot law backers hopeful

January 22, 2005

Jay Root, Star-Telegram

Sitting in a wheelchair at the end of a worn wooden ramp in south Austin, thin and soft-spoken Marcia Johnson, 50, does not fit the stereotype of your average illegal drug user.

But she is a regular pot smoker, and that is against the law in Texas.

Johnson admits to the crime not because she wants to go to jail but because she wants the Texas Legislature to make it legal for people like her -- people who are seriously injured or sick -- to use marijuana medicinally without the fear of prosecution.

"There's a lot of people out there that are very, very afraid," she said. "I can understand that. But unless somebody does something, they'll still be afraid. A lot of people have a lot more to lose than I do."

In Texas, where conservative Republicans are firmly in power, legalizing any sanctioned pot use might be an uphill climb. It could easily die in committee as it did in 2001, failing in the House because nobody in the Senate dared touch it. Already, the conservative Eagle Forum is vowing to fight the legislation, warning that it could lead to outright legalization.

But advocates of the measure say it's never had a better chance of passing. In a Scripps Howard Texas poll last fall, 75 percent of respondents said they support allowing seriously ill Texans to use marijuana to ease suffering.

"I think it's better than 50-50," said state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who plans to file a medical marijuana bill soon. "We expect to have a lot of help from respected organizations and individuals."

The Texas Medical Association has not taken a formal position on the bill, particularly because it hasn't been filed.

But the TMA's House of Delegates in April endorsed a policy saying that doctors should be free to discuss "any and all possible treatment options related to the patients' health and clinical care, including the use of marijuana, without the threat to physician or patient of regulatory, disciplinary, or criminal sanctions."

Proponents also note that 10 states, including usually conservative Montana and Colorado, have medical marijuana laws on the books.

"I think more and more members realize that the amelioration of serious pain is a legitimate medical use for any drug in our arsenal," said state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, a former Travis County sheriff and author of the unsuccessful bill in 2001.

"We have for some reason in our pharmacology isolated that particular herb as not of medicinal value when it in fact is. And we need to correct that."

Life-changing event

It was an unusually hot September morning in 1988 when Marcia Johnson put her two toddlers into the back of a Chevy crew cab pickup and headed to Cotulla to buy some curtain hardware.

She ignored that little voice telling her to put on her seat belt, which probably made it easier for her to turn around and scold her kids for fighting over their ice cream cones.

It was that brief moment of inattention that changed her life forever.

The pickup veered off Interstate 35, blew out a tire and flipped end over end three times. The children, who were wearing seat belts, only had a few scratches.

But Johnson suffered a crushed chest, collapsed lungs, a lacerated heart and two spinal cord injuries that have left her paralyzed from just under her arms down to her toes.

Johnson spent two years in and out of the hospital, and on drugs that either didn't help relieve her pain and stiffness or had so many side effects that she couldn't bear to take them any more.

After seeing a TV program about a mother who obtained marijuana for a son dying of terminal cancer, Johnson decided to try it herself.

She hadn't smoked it since she was a teen-ager, but Johnson said she discovered that marijuana was the only thing that controlled her painful muscle spasms and stiffness. She's been smoking it regularly ever since.

Now cast in the unlikely role of medical marijuana advocate, Johnson said she wants opponents of the legislation to put themselves in her position.

"If you would sit in my chair for a while and live with the things that I have to live with, I think there would be no argument at all," she said.

"I don't party a lot. It's not like I'm going out and getting high just for the fact of it."

The debate

Naishtat's legislation as currently drafted would give doctor-recommended medical marijuana users an "affirmative defense" to prosecution, weaker than an outright exemption but probably more politically palatable in the conservative Texas Legislature.

Opponents, however, say that even a crack in the door will lead to widespread pot use and future attempts at more expansive legalization. They say patients can instead use Marinol -- a legal, synthetic alternative -- although many users say it doesn't work as well as marijuana.

"There are too many other medical alternatives. Marijuana is not only addictive, but I have read too much about the long-term negative effects," said Cathie Adams, director of the conservative Eagle Forum. "It's a very bad idea."

Nationally, opponents of medical marijuana have included drug war veterans such as former drug czar Barry McCaffrey and former presidents Ford, Carter and Bush.

Proponents note that marijuana has been used medicinally for thousands of years and was even prescribed by American doctors until the 1930s. Whether it is physically addictive has long been debated. Medical marijuana advocates say it's illogical that Congress still lists it as a Schedule I drug, putting it on the same footing as heroin and LSD -- substances that are deemed ripe for abuse and have no accepted medical use.

"There really is no comparison. There has never been in the history of mankind a recorded death from an overdose of marijuana. It's never happened," said Dr. Richard Evans, founder of the nonprofit Texas Cancer Center in Houston.

Evans is another seemingly unlikely ally of the pro-medical-marijuana camp: His brother is Donald Evans, the outgoing U.S. commerce secretary, who is widely regarded as President Bush's closest friend.

Richard Evans said cancer patients have told him that marijuana effectively controls the nausea and vomiting that often accompany their treatment. He said he sees no valid reason not to let them have it.

He expressed confidence that the Legislature will eventually approve it. The question is when: "We're just trying to make it sooner rather than later."

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