A patient pleads for access

October 03, 2007

Tom Hennessy, Columnist, Long Beach Press-Telegram

"My husband has terminal lung cancer," said the woman on the phone.

That was her introduction to a complicated, sometimes harrowing story about trying to obtain the only medicine that gives her husband relief.

The medicine is marijuana.

She called a day after Tracy Manzer's Sunday story listing 11 Long Beach locations where, police say, marijuana is sold to people in medical need, and perhaps to people pretending to be in medical need.

Manzer's story also quoted aides to City Attorney Robert Shannon as saying those places were about to have some form of legal action taken against them. Shannon has since announced that such action is on hold pending future developments by the state attorney general and a court of appeals.

The suggestion in Sunday's story that the marijuana sellers might be shut down left the woman fearful that her husband would be unable to purchase the drug to relieve his cancer.

"We have not been pot or drug abusers or anything like that," the woman told me. "But it has become obvious that the only way he can get any relief for his breathing is from marijuana. The other things they give him just do not work.

"He has a (Long Beach) place he goes to get it. The first time we went we felt like we were in a dark alley; like we were illegal. The whole thing felt so bad to us," she says.

In time, however, she decided her guilt feelings were not appropriate. After all, wasn't California law on her side? Well, yes. In 1996, Proposition 215, legalizing the sale of medical marijuana, was approved by 56 percent of state voters.

But this is where the situation becomes more complicated.

Agencies at odds

Diana Lejins, who is with Advocates for Disability Rights and will figure further in this story, says 215 guaranteed seriously ill Californians the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes.

A dozen other states have enacted similar laws, all of which are being ignored by the federal government. The result is a standoff, with the chronically ill caught in the middle.

The man and wife cited above are Long Beach residents. She has given me permission to use her name. However, I will not do so because the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has a history of making raids on people using marijuana for medical relief.

Frustrated by her husband's being unable to buy marijuana legally, Mrs. X is also bothered by what she says is her inability to present his dilemma to officials: "Where can we go to lodge our viewpoint?"

I suggested the City Council, even while feeling this is not likely to do her any good.

For all her troubles and those of her husband, Mrs. X says she understands the city's position: even if medical marijuana sales were sanctioned by the federal government, it would be difficult to prevent ineligible marijuana users from abusing the system.

"I agree there are people who are getting marijuana and are not eligible for it," she says. "How do we stop that? How do we get that under control?"

An advocate's view

Before hearing that Shannon was not ready to close marijuana outlets in Long Beach, Lejins said this, "Closing down the medical marijuana cooperatives in Long Beach would be cruel and inhumane to those in dire need of this medicine."

Allowing patients to grow their own marijuana in restricted amounts is one possible solution. But Lejins notes that not all patients are physically able to do that.

She adds, "Forcing patients who cannot grow their own medicine to seek it on street corners puts them at considerable risk. The quality of the marijuana from these sources is often poor and not as effective as higher grade cannabis. Also, the locations of these sources are often dangerous."

Recognizing there may be neighborhood resistance to marijuana dispensaries, as they are called, Lejins sees a need to limit the number of such facilities, and adds, "This is a golden opportunity to create guidelines for the co-ops that would benefit the health and welfare of patients rather than driving them underground."

"Most co-ops wish to be good neighbors and would appreciate the opportunity to work with local government toward that endeavor. It is ludicrous to deny them a permit to operate, then close them down because they don't have a permit," she says.

Addressing the compassionate aspect of medical marijuana, Lejins adds, "Who would ask their 80-year-old grandmother, dying of liver cancer, to go to a perilous street corner begging for a medicine that could help alleviate her suffering?"

Please do not interpret this column as an argument to legalize marijuana. That is a different debate.

The column is actually a plea on behalf of one cancer patient, and thousands of others who, like him, are seriously ill.

Are they to suffer because the government cannot devise a system whereby those in pain can be helped, and those seeking to get high can be turned away?

Not even the government can be that stupid and that lacking in compassion. Or can it?

Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270 or by e-mail at Scribe17@mac.com.

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