Debate rages over medical use of marijuana

February 15, 2005

Phil Garber, The Randolph Recorder

A billionaire Democratic philanthropist and a conservative Morris County Republican Assemblyman find themselves on the same side of a controversial state proposal to permit marijuana to be used for medical purposes. The New York philanthropist is George Soros, who gained notoriety in the 2004 presidential election for sinking more than $14 million of his own money in a losing effort to defeat President Bush.

The Assemblyman is Michael Patrick Carroll, considered by himself and others to be among the most conservative members of the state Legislature.

While they likely agree on little else, both say that people with terminal conditions, chronic pain and other serious illnesses should be allowed to use marijuana and that the drug has proven beneficial for everything from pain reduction to appetite enhancement for people wasting away from the ravages of AIDS.

But others have fought such plans on a federal level, claiming that there are other more effective drugs already available and that the effort is no less than a smokescreen to make it generally legal to use marijuana.

Those who have spoken against medical marijuana use range from President Bush to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11.

“I don’t believe there is an evil plant,” said Carroll. “This is a decision that should be made by a doctor. If a doctor feels it is efficacious, that decision should be made.”

Meanwhile, Soros has donated millions to campaigns around the nation to legalize medical use of marijuana. A spokesman said the Hungarian-born financier supports the New Jersey plan but has not yet given any money toward the lobbying effort.

Pending Legislation

Carroll said he expects to co-sponsor a bill in the Assembly to mirror one already proposed in the Senate, S2200, and sponsored by Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union.

The bill would allow the state Department of Health and Senior Services to give registration cards to patients whose doctors say they need the marijuana. The bill would allow patients or caretakers to have up to six plants or one ounce of marijuana.

Acting Gov. Richard Codey has said he opposes the bill but Scutari said he spoke with Codey and that Codey is willing to further discuss the proposal.

“Any time we can help people who are in the weakest position, we should do it,” said Scutari. “We’re talking about people with debilitating diseases, people in their death beds. Where is the compassion for the people who are dying?”

“The biggest obstacle we have is to educate the public and our opponents,” said Scutari. “New Jersey is more progressive than the rest of the country and I believe decisions will be made based on the facts.”

Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, said he knows people who are planning suicide because of the pain that could be relieved if marijuana was readily available to them.

“For the government to say they would rather have these patients commit suicide is absolutely outrageous,” said Wolski of Trenton. “This bill will be enacted because there is too much science, logic and common sense on the side of medical marijuana. How long it takes New Jersey politicians to understand, only they know.”

In the United States, 33 states have passed legislation recognizing the therapeutic value of medical marijuana. Nine states have removed criminal penalties for use, possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical reasons, including Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine and Vermont. Washington, D.C. also passed a medical marijuana initiative but Congress struck it down, as the District of Columbia has no home rule.

On the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers marijuana as a schedule I drug, in the same class as heroin and LSD. Most recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a California woman sued after she was arrested for illegal possession of pot even though state law allowed its use for medical reasons. The final word will come if the Justice Department appeals and if the Supreme Court rules on whether the federal government can enforce federal drug laws in states that permit medical use of marijuana.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has introduced legislation in past years to permit medical use of marijuana but the efforts have failed.

Frelinghuysen was among the majority in Congress who voted against a bill last year to cut the federal funds used to prosecute patients using marijuana for medical uses. Frelinghuysen also voted with a majority in Congress to block the District of Columbia from allowing medical use of marijuana after the district had voted for the law.

In New Jersey, a law passed in 1981 allowed the state to join in a national study to evaluate the medical benefits of marijuana. But federal support later waned and there have been no studies.

For And Against

Proponents of legalized use of pot for medical use also rejected the charge that it will lead to general legalization of marijuana. They said that in the nine states that permit medical use of pot, there has been no effort for general legalization while there have been many benefits to patients.

“If legalized medical marijuana use is a toe in the door to completely legalize marijuana, it is a complete failure,” said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based, Marijuana Policy Project. “This is a totally phony argument and a complete red herring.”

Those who favor medical marijuana use said its effectiveness has been proven. Currently, physicians may prescribe a drug in a pill form known as Marinol, which contains THC, the primary chemical in marijuana. But studies have shown that smoked or inhaled marijuana is more effective than Marinol.

Mirken said a 1999 study commissioned by the White House by the Institute of Medicine said marijuana is preferred over Marinol to treat various illnesses and conditions.

Among the reasons, Mirken said many people suffering from chronic conditions, such as nausea, and debilitating illnesses can’t swallow pills. Additionally, Mirken said many people complain that the Marinol gives an unpleasantly high feeling and can’t be regulated in the way that smoked marijuana can.

Mirken also cited other studies in England which have shown that smoked marijuana combined with other medication is more effective than Marinol in alleviating pain associated with multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Howard Swidler of Bethlehem, Pa., chief of the department of emergency medicine at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, said he has been a strong proponent of a law permitting the use of marijuana in medical situations.

“Scientifically, it makes no sense that this should even be a point of contention,” said Swidler. “But politics has usurped science. The states with medical marijuana initiatives have not seen the sky fall.”

Swidler said the side effects of marijuana use are slim compared with the side-effects of many drugs that are already prescribed for the same conditions.

“Most who would be effected are on really toxic drugs,” said Swidler. “Comparatively, marijuana is sea water.”

Swidler said there are not huge numbers of patients who would be prescribed marijuana. But for those who need it, the benefits would be large.

“It’s not huge because it doesn’t effect a lot of patients but if it’s you, it is huge,” said Swidler.

Swidler said he does not dissuade patients who say they plan to smoke pot to lessen their pain or keep them from withering away.

“If a patient’s appetite is so terrible and he is losing weight and says marijuana is helping, I couldn’t in good faith say they shouldn’t use it,” said Swidler.

Dr. Richard Winne, an anesthesiologist from Mendham, said he regularly prescribes Marinol at the Pain Management Center at Morristown Memorial Hospital. Winne said he has never encouraged patients to smoke marijuana but rather to use Marino to relieve pain, nausea or to stimulate weight gain.

“There is nothing medical that supports smoking versus the pill form,” said Winne. “I don’t see any major advantage of smoking.”

“There is a population of people out there who enjoy using marijuana and this is an angle to get it legalized,” said Winne. “You have to wonder about people who want the peak effect of the drug. But the issue is getting around nausea and increasing appetite. You don’t need the peak effect for that.”

Winne also said smoking any substance brings on added problems, such as ingesting carcinogens. But Mirken said inhaling devices allow direct ingestion of the chemicals in pot without the potentially, harmful byproducts.

Steven Steiner of Tioga Center, N.Y., whose son died in 2001 to a prescription drug over dose, has started an organization to fight legalized use of pot for medical reasons. Steiner said his group believes the effort is a way to win general legalization of pot and that it is being led by Soros.

“As a parent who lost a child to drugs, as a parent who smoked pot and saw what it did to my family and my son, it is a gateway drug,” said Steiner. “Based on who is financing it (Soros), it is a ploy to legalize marijuana.”

But Carroll insisted that medical use of marijuana is effective.

“If a person has a terminal illness and there is a drug to help, why stand in the way,” said Carroll. “That should be the end of the question.”

Carroll also said the benefits of allowing marijuana in medical situations outweighs the likelihood that some may abuse the drug.

“People will abuse it,” said Carroll. “The question is whether we should ban its therapeutic purpose because of the fear of abuse. There is no reason to have a blind ideological ban.”

The Assemblyman also said he has received numerous e-mails from people who are alarmed at Soros’s support of medical marijuana laws elsewhere around the nation and think the proposal is part of a plot to win overall legalization of marijuana.

Carroll dismissed the concern and said there are strong reasons to legalize use of marijuana for medical reasons.

Scutari said he had never even heard of Soros before he introduced the bill. Scutari said he has not heard from Soros and has received no funds from the philanthropist.

Soros was one of the earliest and most significant financial supporters of Moveon.org, a group that waged a national effort to defeat Bush.

Soros is a strong supporter of the Drug Policy Alliance of New York City, which coordinated many of the efforts across the nation for medical marijuana laws. The alliance’s executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, said Soros is primarily involved in drug policy reform through his support of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Nadelmann said Soros has provided significant financial support for the medical marijuana ballot initiatives which were approved by voters in California, Alaska, Washington State, Oregon, Nevada, Maine and Washington D.C. between 1996 and 2000. He said the Drug Policy Alliance is currently working on medical marijuana legislation in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Alabama and New Mexico.

Nadelmann said the Drug Policy Alliance has had a “modest advisory role” in the New Jersey effort and that Soros has had “no involvement whatsoever.”

“George Soros is primarily interested in medical marijuana because it lies at the intersection of two broader issues about which he feels strongly, the many ways in which the war on drugs is doing more harm than good and the failures of American medicine to deal compassionately and sensibly with pain and dying,” Nadelmann said in a statement.

Nadelmann said Soros is “not particularly interested in marijuana legalization, and would not regard himself as an advocate of marijuana legalization.”

However, Soros serves on the board of the Drug Policy Alliance, which believes that that marijuana should ultimately be taxed, controlled and regulated more or less like alcohol, with prohibitions remaining on sales to children, driving under the influence, and other related issues, Nadelmann said.

Lining up in favor of medical use of marijuana have been such groups as the N.J. State Nurses Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association and the New England Journal of Medicine. Among those against the bills have been the American Medical Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Scutari and Mirken were skeptical of the individuals and organizations that have come out against medical use of marijuana. Scutari said doctors, pain management centers and drug companies may be less concerned with the effects of smoked marijuana than they are with the loss of money if more patients use the much less costly, smoked marijuana.

They also said organizations that receive federal funds may be reluctant to support a policy that goes against the White House policy.

“This is an administration that has been accused of manipulating and pressuring scientists,” said Mirken. “If I were a clinic or a lab with federal funding, I would be nervous to criticize the party line. The fear is real.”

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