Senate hearing on medical marijuana turns emotional

November 14, 2007

Ken Harris, Badger Herald (WI)

A state Senate committee heard heated testimony Wednesday morning at the Capitol both for and against medicinal marijuana.

The Committee on Health, Human Services, Insurance and Job Creation held a public information hearing about medical marijuana featuring testimony from three “expert witnesses” followed by responses from the public.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who chairs the committee, said he was approached with the idea to hold the hearing “years ago” when he first took office, by Gary Storck, co-founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet?

“I’ve asked questions of a lot of doctors and … a slim majority of them seem to think if that’s what’s going to make the patient feel better and control the pain better they’re not opposed to it,” Erpenbach said. “Some are opposed to it simply because, as they put it, there is no scientific proof.”

The two key witnesses in favor of medicinal marijuana were David Bearman, a practicing physician from Santa Barbara, Calif., and Chris Fichtner from Illinois. Fichtner is a psychiatrist who is the former head of mental health for the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Bearman, one of the biggest problems with legalizing marijuana is the stigma that surrounds the substance. The federal government has labeled it a “schedule one substance” along with other drugs deemed not medically beneficial. Bearman said he believes there is plenty of research that proves this wrong.

“It’s still an uphill battle to remove that stigma,” Bearman said.

Addressing concerns of the committee, Bearman said marijuana is not physically addictive, causing less dependency than coffee.

“The abuse potential is extremely low,” Bearman said.

Following Bearman’s testimony, Fichtner said there is no outlet for the discussion of marijuana outside the realm of substance abuse. He said there needs to be legal research performed to make marijuana and all the chemicals in it specialized to treat different types of ailments — but such research is not allowed right now.

Fichtner also addressed a Yale study that linked marijuana use to increased psychotic brain activity. He called the findings of the study misleading and said the methods were flawed.

In response to a question from the committee, Fichtner addressed the argument that marijuana serves as a “gateway” for users to try other, more dangerous drugs.

According to Fichtner, alcohol has proven, in studies, to serve as a gateway drug at a much higher rate than marijuana.

“There is not good evidence for cannabis as a gateway drug,” Fichtner said.

Storck and fellow IMMLY co-founder Jackie Rickert gave emotional testimony, as Rickert fought to hold back the tears as she described her physical ailments and how marijuana has allowed her to play with her grandchildren.

Donna Daniels, state coordinator for Parent Corps, a national drug prevention program, spoke in opposition to the idea of legalizing the substance for medical use.

“Research has shown that marijuana is an addictive substance,” Daniels said. “Making medical marijuana legal is a stepping-stone to other legalization.”

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