Medical pot has support in Austin
February 15, 2005
Lomi Kriel, Express-News
AUSTIN — Steve never imagined he'd smoke pot like many of the criminals he once helped put away.
He grew up a tall, active teenager in what he describes as a 'Leave-it-to-Beaver household.' He went to church. He joined the military, spending four years traversing Central and South America.
After coming home, he worked as an undercover narcotics officer in a select task force in the state, busting big drug deals from San Antonio to West Texas. Now he fears identifying the task force, or his last name, because he worries about retribution from convicts.
'But it comes to a point,' he says, 'when you have a fear of actually dying. You don't care if smoking weed is illegal or not, if it just makes you feel better.'
And it's for feeling a little better that Steve will join about 100 others involved with Texans for Medical Marijuana on Thursday as they lobby the Legislature to pass House Bill 658.
That proposal, authored by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, would allow patients to use their medical condition as a defense against a marijuana possession charge — if they have a valid recommendation from their doctor.
Steve, 34, suffers from Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome, a rare illness affecting only 1,100 Americans. The disease is pretty much what it sounds like — any time you ingest anything, even water, you vomit. This happens frequently throughout the day; Steve says at its worst, it can get to 30 times an hour.
That makes everything difficult, from going on a date or hanging out with friends to pretty much anything that contributes toward a normal life, but the vomiting is the least of his concerns.
'It's the nausea, the incapacitating nausea,' he says. 'The best way to describe it is, I sit in the bottom of the shower, praying for death.'
During the late 1990s, Steve realized something wasn't right. He was losing weight. He was getting sick — a lot. After countless hospital visits, he was diagnosed, but the disease still is so new and so rare, doctors don't know what to prescribe for it, never mind a cure.
'You name the drug, I tried it,' Steve says.
But nothing worked and he kept shedding weight until he teetered on 98 pounds.
Doctor after doctor, he says, recommended he try medical marijuana and move to California or one of the other eight states where its use is legal.
But because of his background, 'I was never too keen on it,' Steve says. 'When I finally gave in to it, it had gotten to the point that I was so emaciated.'
That was about three months ago. Now Steve is 50 pounds heavier.
He still gets sick — 'three-quarters of the time I ingest anything' — and he still has nausea — 'it's almost under control, on average about 5-6 hours a day.
'But it's a damn sight better than what it used to be,' he adds. 'I'm still sick, but I feel better.'
Steve worries about a lot of things, including getting caught with marijuana and having to suffer the debilitating nausea in jail without it. But he also worries that the campaign for medical marijuana will be wrongly perceived as a fight to legalize all drugs.
'That's not my concern,' he says. 'My concern is only the medical aspect.'
Steve wants a day when he can buy medical marijuana freely. That is not near; even under Naishtat's proposal, the criminal code simply would be amended to give patients a defense in court.
Even though Republican Reps. Terry Keel of Austin and Suzanna Gratia Hupp of Lampasas — both of them leaders in the GOP-controlled House — signed on to support the bill, a similar proposal never passed out of committee when it was proposed in 2001.
This year, the conservative Texas Eagle Forum says it won't stop until that measure is defeated again.
'We are absolutely opposed to it,' says Cathie Adams, its director.
She speculates about the medical value of marijuana and says patients have plenty other medical alternatives.
'I don't think the word 'medical' should ever describe marijuana,' Adams says. 'I just don't accept the notion that marijuana is better than those other drugs.'
Adams also charges that marijuana is a gateway drug and fears patients who use it will experience a 'different kind of suffering,' namely drug addiction.
According to a recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll, 75 percent of respondents favored allowing people with major illnesses to use marijuana, as long as their doctors agreed.
Maybe this year the proposal stands a better chance. At least, Steve hopes so.
'I shouldn't be seen as a criminal for doing something that keeps me alive,' he says.