Stephan: Legalize medical marijuana

August 14, 2007

Sarah Kessinger, Harris News Service, Parson Sun (KS)

TOPEKA - Seven years enduring chemotherapy turned former Kansas Attorney General Bob Stephan into an advocate for legalized medical marijuana.

Stephan said Tuesday that he's long called for doctors to have the right to prescribe marijuana for patients with cancer or other diseases to alleviate pain and nausea from chemotherapy.

"In the early 80s, I was involved in the effort and here I am again."

The state's longest-running chief attorney, Stephan retired in 1995 but has remained active in public affairs, including his plans to join a Friday press conference urging the Legislature to approve the use of marijuana in certain medical cases.

He specified that it should be prescribed only if other drugs have failed.

Twelve states currently have some form of law allowing use of medical marijuana. California was the first to approve and New Mexico was the latest, where legislators passed a new law this spring.

Opponents of such measures often say they send the wrong message to young people because it involves an otherwise illegal drug.

"That is just an appalling, illogical argument," said Dan Bernath, assistant communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "It's important for us as adults to teach children that medicine is for sick people and that medical marijuana is no different."

Stephan, who is now in private practice, said that at Friday's 11 a.m. press conference he'd have more specifics on the issue.

The Kansas Compassionate Care Coalition, a group with chapters in northeast Kansas and Wichita, is holding the event.

"I know what it's like when you can't find anything to alleviate nausea that's endured for that period of time," Stephan said of his battle with cancer. "I've talked to thousands of patients through the years about it. If there's a way to take away from that suffering, we ought to use it."

Current Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison deferred to lawmakers when asked his opinion on the issue Tuesday.

"This is a public policy issue determined by the Legislature," said Morrison spokeswoman Frances Gorman.

Senate Public Health Chairman Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, said he wasn't familiar with the coalition's campaign.

Barnett, a physician, said two prescription drugs, known as cannabinoid medicines, that are marijuana-based and federally approved - Marinol and Cesamet - are now available in pill form to cancer patients facing nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.

While Bernath said that's a good thing, he said some patients wait 45 minutes for the synthesized drugs to take effect. Smoking marijuana can offer almost instant relief from nausea, he said, making it preferable for some patients who can't keep from vomiting pills.

Laura Green, director of the Kansas coalition, said the last time the Kansas Legislature took up a bill on the issue was in 1995. It failed in conference committee.

Green hopes people are more receptive today to the concept of using marijuana, or the cannabis plant, to ease pain in the terminally ill.

"I think that people are not as hysterical about the word today," she said. "That's because about 13,000 Kansans were diagnosed with cancer in 2004 alone. People realize that their loved ones, family members and friends shouldn't suffer needlessly."

Current law in Kansas prescribes a year in jail and a fine of $2,500 for the misdemeanor of marijuana possession. The second conviction is a felony punishable by up to 42 months in jail and a $100,000 fine.

Cultivation of more than four marijuana plants, including for medical purposes, is a felony worth 11 to 17 years in prison.

Green, whose organization is relatively new, hopes with Stephan's support that more Kansans will speak out in favor of a law change. Some of the 400 members in the group aren't willing to publicize their names for fear of retribution.

"Honestly," she said, "we're just starting to get the debate going."

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