The pot doc is in

May 26, 2007

Robyn Moormeister, The Union

Grass Valley physician Dr. Stephen Banister is in the business of making people feel good - or at least a little more comfortable - with his approval of marijuana to treat their pain. This jovial, laid-back Maryland transplant would not say whether he uses marijuana, but he does think very highly of the pain-relieving plant.

Banister graduated from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1971, and he has been instrumental in shaping local standards for medical marijuana since its use was legalized in California in 1996.

He continues to advocate for those standards.



Patients aren't 'stoners'

Banister's dog Sundance trotted around his office during a recent interview. Banister and Christal, his wife of five years, had just returned from a two-week vacation in Hawaii. The tanned doctor, in his worn leather sandals, talked of his love of sailing.

A bowl of cherries sat on the kitchen counter, and his office staff greeted everyone with smiles.

Three men sat in the waiting room. Two looked to be in their 20s.

Banister's patients are "normal, working people" from all walks of life who come to him with myriad ailments, he said.

"You don't see hippies and stoners," he said.

Most people are a little nervous when they first walk through his door, Banister said, so he likes to provide a friendly environment. They're wary of law enforcement because they are breaking federal law by using cannabis.

He's treated several thousand people since the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use in California in 1996. Nearly all his patients, he said, already were using marijuana illegally to treat their pain before they sought his help.


"I think that's an indication it's not a good law," he said.



Advocate for legalization

Being one of the few doctors who recommend pot in the area has challenged his resolve, Banister said.

He was prosecuted by the Medical Board of California on charges of inadequate charting; a thinly-veiled attempt, he said, to prevent him from approving marijuana use for his patients.

He completed probation for the charge in March of 2005. Through all of his legal problems, he said, he never stopped recommending pot.

"I felt like the (state) law was not going to be useful if doctors weren't doing it," he said.


"I think cannabis should be legalized," he said. "Alcohol is. Cigarettes are. If you're going to make things legal that are dangerous, why would you make something that's not dangerous illegal? There are no death from overdoses. If you take too much, you just go to sleep."



Personal responsibility key

A common misconception is that doctors will issue a recommendation without adequate screening, he said.

"There has to be documentation of the problem, such as an MRI," he said. A patient also must show a history of treatment for the problem, he said.

The majority of his patients come with chronic back pain. Others have multiple sclerosis, cancer, migraines, fibromyalgia or colitis.

He also has treated people for attention deficit disorder, including teenagers. Cannabis can have anti-ADD qualities, he said.


He rejects a common argument that marijuana is a "gateway drug," and he said he cannot control people who choose to overuse it.

"You can't control overuse" of marijuana any more than the overuse of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Banister said. "I leave that up to the patient."

And he said there is "no evidence" that marijuana use leads to addiction to harder drugs. "People who abuse drugs may come from an addictive family," he said.

He has recommended marijuana to treat drug addiction, calling it "harm reduction." The idea, he said, is to replace the effects of a dangerous drug with the effects of marijuana use - which he considers healthier. Banister predicted more use of marijuana as a narcotics substitute in the future.

"You have to look at this realistically," he said. "There are millions of people who use cannabis and they function. I drink wine, for example, but I still come to work in the morning."

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To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm@theunion.com or call 477-4236.



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