City Council not just blowing smoke over marijuana sales, use

March 09, 2005

Jeff Jardine - Columnist, Modesto Bee

Considering their knee-jerk reactions last week, Modesto's City Council members seemed awfully, well, mellow Tuesday by the time they formally addressed the issue of medicinal marijuana shops in town.

Medicinal pot, when recommended by licensed physicians, is legal in California. Local municipalities can license or ban the shops where it is sold. When one opened in Modesto recently, it caught the council by surprise and immediately became an agenda item for Tuesday's meeting. From the initial comments, it appeared that the council might immediately vote to ban that kinds of shop.

But by the time the session came to order, cooler heads prevailed. By placing a 45-day ban on any new pot shops, the city bought itself some time to research its legal options. Also, by taking a low-key, noncombative approach, council members are on the record as not being predisposed in their opinions about pot shops. And the council didn't forbid them outright. It just imposed a cooling-off period, for the record.

In essence, the city gave Modesto's lone shop a 45-day monopoly of the medicinal marijuana market — no different, really, than what it gives Comcast in the cable TV venue.

The council listened to those who claim marijuana eases their pain in a way no other narcotic can, and that the Modesto store now saves them a trip to the Bay Area to purchase their pot. And the Internet is loaded with Web pages from people or groups advocating the legalization of marijuana, whether it be for medicinal use or for pleasure.

There also are a couple of Web sites from law enforcement agencies opposing legalized marijuana in any form.

Since the initial story about the pot shop appeared March 1, I've gotten a couple of calls from elderly readers who said they suffer from arthritis and other ailments. They discovered that smoking a joint eases their pain more effectively than the pill version prescribed by doctors.

Both said they would never have used marijuana under any other circumstances, and neither of them even called me 'dude.'

Dr. Robert Levy, a cancer specialist in Modesto, said medical marijuana probably does more to help sufferers' moods than ease their pain. But he doesn't recommend it for his patients because he said there are more effective pain relievers — including Marinol, a pill that has the same THC chemical derivative found in marijuana and eases nausea.

Physicians can't legally prescribe marijuana as they do other medications, Levy said. They can only write a note stating that they believe smoking pot might help a patient.

'That way, we can't be held (legally) responsible,' he said.

'(A marijuana cigarette) is probably the last thing I'd use for pain,' he said. 'They're unfiltered. It'd be nice if they were regulated and purified.'

Harold Peterson, CEO of Community Hospice, which aids and comforts terminally ill patients, said you probably won't find the unmistakable aroma of marijuana wafting from the homes of hospice patients.

'Our official stance is that we only do legal pharmacy prescriptions,' Peterson said. 'We don't have a single patient that's using it. There are other pain management options a physician can prescribe, although there are certain conditions where, for a certain patient, it might work.'

Roughly 80 percent of Hospice patients are over 60, and represent the tail-end of a generation more likely to view marijuana as a social evil rather than a painkiller. And by the time they need hospice care, he said, they're more likely to need a more potent drug, such as morphine or methadone.

'We run the gamut from a patch to methadone to dilaudid pumps, which have five times the strength of morphine,' Peterson said. 'But you'd be surprised how much of our pain relief starts with aspirin.'

Which is exactly what the doctor would order for the council members as they debate the pot shop issue.

Light up a joint? They'd have to get a physician's recommendation. But at least they wouldn't have to drive to the Bay Area.

There's a source right here in town.

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