Human suffering gets lost in medical marijuana debate

May 02, 2005

Marc Hansen, Columnist, Des Moines Register

Terry Mitchell showed up at Java Joe's looking as if he'd just escaped from a Grateful Dead concert. A 1975 Grateful Dead concert.

He had the long hair and the headband with the button that said 'Like it or not, God made pot.'

I looked at the 51-year-old Mitchell and got college flashbacks. I listened to his cogent arguments for making prescription marijuana legal for medical purposes, but I wondered.

This being Iowa and all, wouldn't he have a better shot at changing hearts and minds if he looked more like Chuck Grassley than Jerry Garcia?

Nah. Probably not. State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City who looks nothing like Jerry Garcia, proposed such a bill during the winter. It would have permitted prescription possession and use of marijuana for glaucoma, nausea from chemotherapy and radiation, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and a few other illnesses.

Senate File 64 went nowhere. When it comes to drugs, emotion often trumps reason: We're finally cracking down on meth, and now we want to let up on grass? What kind of message does that send the kids?

But Republican or Deadhead, it's a debate worth having. Twelve states, mostly in the West, permit seriously ill patients to use marijuana. Iowa is not one of them.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the federal government can prosecute patients who smoke pot on doctor's orders.

Two California women, Diane Monson and Angel Raich, sued the government after federal drug agents confiscated the six marijuana plants growing in Monson's yard.

At first there was a standoff. Sheriff's deputies refused to let the agents take the plants. The agents refused to leave, saying they'd be the ones who regulate drug use. Finally, the deputies stood by while the feds chopped down the plants.

Unfortunately, the case isn't about whether medical marijuana would help sick people more than legal painkillers. It isn't about two women who can't legally use the cannabis that their doctors have prescribed and that their state has approved.

It's about states' rights. It's about who has the constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.

It's about human suffering getting lost in legal fine points.

Raich has a brain tumor and a slew of other disabling medical conditions. Monson has severe back problems. They say that regular pain medications don't work for them the way marijuana does.

Mitchell, a former truck driver who lives on disability in Dexter, understands. He has degenerative disc problems in his back.

He said everyone can tell when he's been smoking pot. How?

'I can stand straight up when I'm smoking.'

Mitchell doesn't need his cane then. He isn't hunched over like a human comma.

Doctors tell him the source of his back problems are all those hours riding hard-tail motorcycles and driving trucks as a young man. He's seen the MRI. It's scary.

'There are all these beautiful white vertebrae,' he said, 'then there are three that look like someone took a pin and poked little dots in them. They tell me it could snap at any time. The pain is terrible, and cannabis is the only thing that gives me relief.'

At one point in our conversation at Java Joe's, Mitchell excused himself to go to the men's room. His 6-foot 4-inch frame melted to about 5-9 as he shuffled away from the table.

He'll probably be hunched over again Saturday. That's the day of the annual Global Marijuana March. It's the day the pro-legalization crowd rallies from noon to 4 on the Capitol steps.

Mitchell can tell you why marijuana should be legal and regulated like alcohol and tobacco. He makes some decent points, but let's be real. Steve King, the Republican congressman from Kiron, will try to make Arabic the official language before that happens.

Mitchell tells me he hasn't smoked pot in a while. He was busted for possession in Cass County a few years ago and doesn't like taking chances. He lost his driver's license. He did 30 days in jail. He was hit with a big fine.

The State Patrol stopped him for speeding and found a joint in his shirt pocket.

'That's for medication,' he said.

'Not in this state, it isn't,' he was told.

No, but why not?

Most marijuana users in chronic pain aren't potheads looking to get high. They're sick people trying to get through the day.

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