Hansen: Nothing can ease his pain quite like marijuana

June 16, 2006

Marc Hansen, Columnist, Desmoines Register (IA)

I'd planned to visit Ray Lakers in the Polk County Jail. But when it was time to make arrangements, he was already gone. The place was overbooked, so they shipped him to Bethany, Mo., an hour and a half away.

A week later they slipped the shackles on Lakers again, put him in a van, shipped him back to Des Moines and let him loose.

Not that Bethany isn't a wonderful place. It's just a long way to go to pay your debt to society for a crime that isn't against the law in at least a dozen other states.

Maybe the government can't find a better way to spend the time and money.

Last August, the cops found less than a gram of marijuana in Lakers' car during a traffic stop near his south-side home. They pulled him over for speeding but he ended up in jail for breaking probation when he failed a drug test.

That was no surprise. About two years ago, Lakers woke up one morning and couldn't move his right leg. He thought he'd had a stroke.

No stroke, the doctor said. Multiple sclerosis.

Lakers, who works part-time for an awards business in Urbandale, uses marijuana to ease the pain and discomfort.

He's like thousands of others who use cannabis to combat chronic pain, glaucoma, epilepsy, nausea from chemotherapy. He's tried prescription drugs, he says, and nothing works like the THC in pot.

Without marijuana, his "insides start shutting down." The right side of his body starts to burn.

It's a bad way to spend the day, a bad way to spend a week in Bethany.

On the day we met, he was still sore about having his car impounded, his license suspended, his budget blown to bits by $1,500 in fines.

He was also fired up about research that verified what he already knew to be true.

A UCLA study found that smoking marijuana wasn't any worse than smoking tobacco when it comes to the risk of developing lung cancer. What's more, the THC found in marijuana might even inhibit tumor growth.

Then there's the National MS Society, which agreed to finance a big study at the Cal-Berkeley Medical Cannabis Research Center.

The MS Society acknowledged that as many as 15 percent of MS patients use marijuana for relief. "They finally recognized cannabis as a pain reliever," Lakers said. "That's really got me excited."

They're not saying a reefer a day keeps the doctor away. We're talking about 400 chemicals in one joint, which probably won't do wonders for your asthma.

When I finally caught up with Lakers, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Meth is Death, Pot is Not."

Lakers, 39, should know. He could write a book about substance use and abuse.

He drank beer in high school and smoked pot. He used cocaine in the '80s. Later, he had a three-year experiment with meth, which caused him all kinds of trouble.

To the other side, Lakers is a walking argument for the "marijuana as a gateway drug" theory. The folks on the other side could substitute alcohol for marijuana and say the same thing, but they probably won't.

Lakers says he's been clean for four years - doesn't even smoke cigarettes anymore - and isn't going back to the other stuff.

While the other stuff nearly killed him, marijuana helps him get out of bed every morning.

"I'd rather Des Moines be the medical marijuana capital of the Midwest than the meth capital," he told me. "I'm an advocate for medical marijuana now. That's who I am."

It's better than who he was. When it comes to the medical-marijuana cause, the past is part of the problem. He acknowledges that.

"I lose a lot of cred with my street background. "

As earnest and as well-meaning as he might be, Lakers isn't the ideal poster child.

He isn't as smooth, urbane or accomplished as Montel Williams, who started an anti-drug program for children before he became a TV personality. Williams has MS, too.

When he told his story to the Senate earlier this month, he wasn't wearing a "Meth is Death" T-shirt. He looked as if he'd popped out of a GQ ad, but listen to what he said.

"What angers me so much is that people consider me a dopehead when all I want to do is wake up in the morning and go to work without pain."

Lakers has more in common with Williams than he thinks.

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