A case for legalizing marijuana for the seriously ill

February 12, 2008

Fran Wood, Everything New Jersey

If New Jersey doesn't become the 13th state to legalize medicinal marijuana, it won't be for lack of effort by Scott Ward.

Ward has multiple sclerosis. He discovered some time ago that the only medication that did anything for his condition was marijuana -- and he resents having to break the law to have something that approximates a normal quality of life.

Now 24, Ward was diagnosed in November 2006, just six months after graduating with high honors from Rutgers.

"I was training for a marathon, and I began to experience some double vision when I was running," he says, citing a symptom common at the onset of MS.

MS, which typically strikes adults 20 to 40, is a chronic degenerative disease of the central ner vous system, causing nerve inflam mation, muscular weakness and erosion of motor coordination. It can cause permanent disability and, in some cases, death. There is no known cure.

Ward, who had been planning to apply to law school, first took a variety of medications prescribed by his neurologist. But he found the side effects intolerable.

"I went downhill very quickly," he says. "I remember going to Washington, D.C., for an interview with the State Department, and after my 10-hour interview, I was in terrible pain. I'd had a headache for two weeks, but now I was vomiting up everything I ate, and I was having terrible trouble with my left leg.

"I was staying at a friend's house, and he said he could ar range to get me some marijuana, that he'd heard it brought relief to many people with MS."

Ward had tried marijuana only once -- "I ate it, and I thought it was awful and knew I'd never try it again." But now nothing else was working, so he gave it a try.

"It was amazing," he recalls. "My two-week headache went away, I could eat and I could walk. I didn't have any pain. I felt like I was normal again."

When Ward returned home to New Jersey, he didn't have access to marijuana, and his symptoms re turned.

"In December, I was in bed for five days," he says. "I couldn't get out of bed or eat. My little brother had to carry me around the house."

He consulted a doctor at Johns Hopkins -- "who is supposed to be the end-all and be-all authority on MS" -- and reported the side ef fects he experienced from standard medication and his experience with marijuana.

"He said if marijuana was working, go ahead with it," recalls Ward. "A doctor can't prescribe it, of course, can't say this is what you should do. But they recognize it helps some people."

Indeed, many doctors are familiar with their patients' use of marijuana to mitigate the effects of a number of chronic illnesses -- among them epilepsy, ALS, Alz heimer's, arthritis, glaucoma, high blood pressure and various cancers.

But with MS, it seems to offer more. It is the only treatment that has been seen, in some cases, to fully arrest the symptoms, according to a report by researchers at the University College of London's Institute of Neurology in the July 2002 issue of the journal Brain.

A dozen states have legalized medical marijuana, but such laws have been challenged, and the federal government has intervened. In California, the Drug Enforcement Administration has conducted raids on patients, resulting in ar rests and sentencing.

Americans for Safe Access, founded in 2002 in response to those raids, has had some success in helping change drug law penalties when they involve seriously ill patients. The organization is continuing its campaign to meet the immediate needs of patients and to create long-term programs that encourage research.

Ward has become active with the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, an advocacy group whose Compassionate Use Campaign supports legislation that would allow seriously ill patients legal ac cess to marijuana.

Legislation was considered in New Jersey in 2006, but opposition thwarted it. Among the most prominent opponents was Terrence Farley, who, as a narcotics ex pert in the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, testified against the bill, suggesting it was just a stalking horse for legalizing drugs.

Ward hopes to help persuade legislators otherwise. He says his experience convinced him the need is acute.

"One month I was training for a marathon, running 10 miles a day," he says. "The next I was so sick I had to be helped out of tub. I couldn't eat. I couldn't read. I couldn't do anything."

The occasional use of marijuana changed all that, he says. He now can eat, get around without pain, focus on a book without getting a headache. He's active in his church. He recently took his law school entrance exams and expects to apply to law school this spring.

"That's the difference it makes in my life," he says. "Legal or not, I have to do this."

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