Two report relief from medical marijuana, but government doctor unconvinced
September 29, 2007
David Olson, Press-Enterprise (CA)
Carl Casey is convinced marijuana saved his sight. Kathy Jones says cannabis provides more relief for her muscle-related disease than the 27 pills she used to take for it.
The two Inland residents are among thousands of Californians who have doctors' permission to smoke marijuana to help them cope with medical conditions.
As medical-marijuana dispensaries in the Inland area close or authorities shut them down, local patients are traveling to Los Angeles County dispensaries or combing Inland streets to search for what they view as medicine, not a recreational drug.
With the closure this week of a medical-cannabis dispensary in Palm Desert, only two known medical-marijuana outlets remain in Riverside or San Bernardino counties, both in Palm Springs, patients and authorities said.
Earlier this year, authorities raided or closed four Inland marijuana dispensaries -- in Corona, Perris, Riverside and Norco.
Special Agent Steve Robertson, a spokesman at Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters outside Washington, D.C., said the agency would continue conducting raids because "marijuana has no medical use based on federal law."
California voters approved the medicinal use of marijuana in 1996. State law allows people suffering from AIDS-related complications, cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and other diseases to use cannabis to relieve pain. They must first get a doctor's recommendation. Patients can possess no more than eight ounces of marijuana and six mature plants.
But marijuana use remains a federal crime, and federal officials view state and local laws as irrelevant.
In addition, the DEA and the Riverside County district attorney's office allege that some of the dispensaries were operating as for-profit businesses, which is illegal in California.
Nearly 10 years ago, Kathy Jones felt an intense pain in the abdomen when she reached for the telephone. A year later, the 47-year-old Riverside woman was taking 27 pills a day to help her cope with a condition later diagnosed as fibromyalgia, disorder of the muscles and joints that can cause severe pain.
"I was mostly bedridden," she says. "I was so out of it with the pills."
In 2002, Jones' son, after researching the potential medical benefits of cannabis, approached her with a marijuana cigarette and said, "Mom, why don't you try this?"
That night, she smoked the joint her son had given her. Jones says she slept better than she had in years, and that, when she woke up, she didn't have to ask her husband to help her walk to the bathroom, as she had every day for four years.
The marijuana provided far more pain relief than her prescription medicine, she says. Jones started smoking it four times a day.
Eventually, she stopped taking most of her pills. She now only takes two pills each day.
"I don't want to be a druggie," Jones says. "Those 27 pills made me a druggie. I'd rather die than start taking that many pills again."
Marijuana has not eliminated Jones' pain. But it's bearable, Jones says as she stands in her bedroom.
On the dresser, near a package of antacids and a pair of glasses, sits two clear plastic containers of marijuana - one with cannabis for the day, the other with a more sleep-inducing strain of the weed for the night.
Every two weeks or so, her husband drives her to Los Angeles or West Hollywood to buy marijuana from a dispensary. She's afraid those dispensaries will be shut down one day as well.
"I don't want to have to go to the street corner to get my medicine," Jones says, her eyes welling up with tears. "By (state) law, I'm allowed to grow six marijuana plants for myself, but I'm afraid to grow it because I don't want to get arrested."
Jones says her life is vastly better now that she smokes marijuana. She can take walks and move around the house, and she can visit her ailing parents in San Bernardino.
"I thank God every day that I have my life back now," she said.
The area around Carl Casey's bathroom sink is covered almost entirely by plastic bottles of prescription drugs.
The Hemet man takes 31 pills a day, for clogged arteries, high blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments.
Yet Casey, 66, says the most effective medicine he's found sits in a cookie jar in his dining room.
He smokes the marijuana in that jar only once a day, just before bed, so he doesn't spend the day high from the drug's effects. But that's enough to get relief from the intense pressure on his eyes that glaucoma causes, he says. Marijuana has helped far more than any pill, Casey says.
The cannabis even helps counter the side effects from his diabetes medication, which causes him to shun food. The marijuana stimulates his appetite.
On Casey's table sits a 101st Airborne Division cap, a reminder of the three years Casey served in Korea as an Army paratrooper.
As Casey explains how he believes marijuana has prevented him from going blind, a Federal Express deliveryman arrives carrying yet another package of pills from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Casey says a friend obtains marijuana for him. He doesn't know where the friend gets it. Casey had gone a few times to a marijuana dispensary in North Hollywood, but he says he can't drive that far by himself.
He wishes there were a dispensary nearby, because he doesn't want his friend to get arrested for helping him.
Dr. Bertha Madras said she's heard anecdotes of people who say marijuana has helped reduce their suffering from illnesses.
But Madras, a deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the anecdotes are not enough.
"We're not dismissing them," she said. "But using anecdotes is poor science and poor medicine, and it's poor public policy."
Her office has helped lead the federal government's battle against the 12 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use.
A 1999 National Academy of Sciences report found evidence that components of marijuana -- called cannabinoids -- can help combat severe pain, nausea and loss of appetite. But the report said that marijuana smoke, like cigarette smoke, can be harmful, and recommended that scientists focus on developing nonsmokable, cannabinoid medicine.
Madras said Marinol, a pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration that includes a synthetic version of THC, a key compound in cannabis, is just as medically helpful as patients claim smoked marijuana is. Other FDA-approved drugs, without cannabinoids, provide more relief from nausea, appetite loss and other conditions than marijuana does, with a controlled dosage and without harmful smoke, she said.
Caren Woodson, director of governmental affairs for Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, which supports the use of medical marijuana, said many people say that smoked or baked marijuana provides much more relief than Marinol and other prescription drugs. Marinol uses only one synthesized component of marijuana, THC, which can produce anxiety in patients, she said. In smoked marijuana, other compounds counteract anxiety, she said.
Long-term heavy smoking of marijuana could cause health problems, Woodson acknowledged. But cannabis can also be baked into food and ingested using drops or sprays, she said.
The group supports research into creating medications out of individual cannabinoids, Woodson said. But people suffering from debilitating diseases should not have to wait years for such medications to be developed if they are able to get relief now from smoking marijuana, she said.
Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com