State pushed on medical marijuana

March 31, 2005

Jannell McGrew, Montgomery Advertiser

Laura Campbell knows it's illegal for her to smoke pot.

But the 32-year-old mother of three has a debilitating illness that ravages her joints and causes excruciating pain, often leaving her crouched in the fetal position and rocking in agony. She and others like her want the Alabama Legislature to pass a law making medicinal use of marijuana legal.

State Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, is pushing legislation that would legalize the use of the drug for the seriously ill and dying. Campbell, who suffers from three forms of arthritis and fibromyalgia, is hopeful the bill will make its way to the governor's desk and be signed into law.

"I take 14 pills a day," Campbell said during a news conference announcing the proposed legislation Thursday. "It hurts so bad, you shake. You can't find a physician to make the pain stop."

Under the proposed legislation, use of marijuana would be strictly limited to medicinal purposes, said Hall, the principal sponsor.

"It's with a doctor's recommendation," Hall said. "It would be illegal for an individual to get it and sell it."

Hall's measure would allow patients access to marijuana for relief of their symptoms. Similar measures have found support in other states, and a poll last year indicated a healthy majority of Alabamians backed the idea.

According to the survey by the Mobile Register and the University of South Alabama, 76 percent of Alabama residents believe adults should be allowed to use marijuana if their physicians recommended it.

Despite public opinion, Gov. Bob Riley said he would not support such a measure.

"There's no way I can support legalization of marijuana or any other illegal drug," the governor said Thursday. "There are a multitude of other prescription options I think are still viable."

The Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Public Health Association have endorsed the medicinal value of marijuana, said Naomi Long, national field coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The New York-based Drug Policy Alliance has supported similar legislation in 10 states, including Alaska, California, Colorado and Vermont.

Long said 36 other states, and the District of Columbia, have passed legislation recognizing the drug's medicinal value.

"Not only does this bill protect the rights of Alabamians to receive compassionate care, but it also protects their sacred relationship with the physicians," Long said. "It's about really helping those patients who are terminally ill and treating them with the kind of compassion that allows them access to alternative medications for pain management."

Hall said the measure could help many AIDS patients, some of whom simply cannot take traditional medicines to quiet pain.

"Some of the individuals dealing with AIDS can't take anything, and they've gone through the whole medical regimen," Hall said.

Campbell said she is allergic to 95 percent of pain medications. She pulled out her notebook and rattled off the lengthy list of drugs. Her husband, who declined to release his name, said he would be fired from his job "in an instant" if his employers discovered his wife used marijuana for her illnesses.

"I watch her suffer every day," he said.

Campbell said she is in constant fear of being arrested for drug possession.

"I'm stuck being a lawbreaker, but I have no other choices," she said.

According to local authorities, a person convicted of felony possession of marijuana could pay up to $5,000 in fines and serve up to 10 years in prison. Conviction for misdemeanor possession carries a fine of up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

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