Inland rallies seek medical pot OK

June 06, 2002

MARK HENRY, TINA BENNETT and MICHAEL FISHER of THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE ,

Inland residents with spinal injuries, AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and other ailments delivered a simple message Thursday: It's time to let doctors prescribe marijuana as a way to relieve their pain and suffering.

A half-dozen people in Palm Springs and a dozen in Riverside joined a National Day of Action planned in 55 cities to protest federal raids and arrests of people who grow, supply or use the drug for medical reasons, said Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project in Palm Springs.

The group delivered a letter to the local office of Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, asking her to help sponsor a federal law to make the drug available as medicine.

In Riverside, protesters gathered outside the federal Drug Enforcement Agency office, accusing the agency of ignoring California's 1996 passage of Prop. 215, which approved marijuana for medical use. Since then, the measure has been tied up in the courts.

Opponents of the medical marijuana measure, like Marilyn MacDougall, director of Orange County-based Drug Use Is Life Abuse, consider Prop. 215 a sham that allows some people without serious illnesses access to the drug.

"There are drugs that are accepted by the FDA for wasting syndrome and nausea. Those are the ones that have been tested and those are the ones that should be used," MacDougall said.

Protesters said the medical need is real.

"We voted for something, we used the system, and now they're using the system against us," said Tony Terry, 39, of Desert Hot Springs, adding he uses marijuana to deal with pain and side effects of hepatitis C and head and spinal injuries. "If there's a medicine available to help people from suffering, why not let them have it?"

Ambiguity and enforcement

After Californians passed the measure, a series of lawsuits created ambiguity. The government threatened doctors who prescribed the drug and the issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled that federal laws against drugs do not exempt marijuana, even for medical uses.

In the meantime, a federal lawsuit to shut down an Oakland cannabis club challenged the California measure. A judge's ruling on that case is expected soon.

Thursday's protests, which included 10 arrests outside the Department of Justice in Washington, will not alter the DEA's tactics or enforcement of laws regarding marijuana, said agency spokesman Rogene Waite.

The DEA maintains that sound science should determine whether marijuana has any legitimate medical purpose and that research has not found that to be true, Waite said.

In San Bernardino County, deputies have arrested a few people on marijuana violations, but charges were later dropped after the courts ruled the drug was used for medical purposes, sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson said. The medical marijuana law is vaguely worded and lacks definitions, such as how much marijuana a person can have for medical purposes, Patterson said.

"We have encountered people with dozens and dozens of plants who are claiming medical marijuana use, and to us, that's very suspect," Patterson said. "There's a lot of gray area there."

Bono's spokesman, Rusty Payne, said Bono would welcome the chance to talk with constituents about the issue and holds great respect for the initiative process. But Bono is not a co-sponsor of federal legislation to make the drug available with a prescription because of the lack of definitive scientific evidence to support the change, Payne said.

Finding support

Supporters of marijuana for medical use cite scientific studies and their own experience to argue the drug works to ease pain, nausea and side effects from prescription drugs -- particularly as an alternative to addictive painkillers that can cause liver and kidney problems, said Brian Goldfine, a medical doctor in Palm Desert.

Under Prop. 215, doctors can write letters of permission for patients to use marijuana if they suffer from glaucoma, AIDS, spinal problems, migraines and other qualifying diseases, Goldfine said.

He said he began writing such letters about a year ago.

"My main job is to help people and alleviate suffering, so I think it's the right and proper thing to do," said Goldfine, who has practiced in the desert for about 12 years.

At the DEA's nondescript Riverside office, about a dozen people walked with picket signs and encouraged passing motorists to honk in support of medical marijuana.

As a passing truck honked in support, LaVonne Victor of Temecula straightened up a sign. A silver-colored cane rested against her leg as she sat at the base of the building flagpole.

"It's not for children, but the DEA should give up control to the medical doctors," she said as her husband, Martin, walked with another sign.

Pain and imprisonment

David L. Herrick, 52, of Mira Loma said marijuana saves him from debilitating lower back pain. After trying surgery and conventional medications, Herrick said he found relief in marijuana.

"Some days I have to literally crawl out of bed to get to the toilet in the morning," Herrick said, adding he was under the influence of the drug at the rally.

"It (smoking marijuana) is the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night." He pulled papers out of his back pocket, showing what appeared to be a prescription stapled to his California state disability paperwork.

Herrick said he served 29 months in prison for giving a dying man marijuana in a hospice.

The Victors said they were arrested last October for growing marijuana in their Temecula home. LaVonne Victor, 46, said she inhales the drug using a humidifier to ease her multiple sclerosis and emphysema.

They said they grew their own marijuana until their arrest. They're scared to buy it on the street and worry about its quality on the black market. Now they get it through an underground network.

"We know people that know people that know people," she said. "We don't even know all their names."

Michael Fisher can reached by email at mfisher@pe.com, or by phone at 587-3139.



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