The Cannabis Cure

July 27, 2011

Matt Kanner, The Wire

When Portsmouth resident Nancy Grossman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 12 years ago, she considered herself lucky. As cancers go, she had developed one of the most treatable forms. All you have to do, she said, is listen to your doctor. But that didn’t prove to be as easy as it sounds.

“The main thing was to eat, but immediately, as soon as I started chemotherapy, I lost all interest in food,” Grossman said. “But, being a child of the ’60s, I knew what to do.”

Rapidly thinning, Grossman went looking for marijuana, and it didn’t take her long to find some. Smoking the dried flowers made her cough, so she instead baked it into cookies. The drug helped alleviate her nausea and restore her appetite.

Grossman said her doctor did not recommend any alternative drugs. Had it not been for cannabis, she believes she never would have made it through chemo.

“I could not eat. I could not keep things down. I didn’t have any appetite in the first place, and I could not lose any more weight. So I self-medicated,” she said. “It got me through that whole period. I couldn’t have eaten otherwise.”

Grossman is one of many people on the Seacoast and around the country who have used marijuana to treat symptoms of various ailments. And yet, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently determined that marijuana has no medicinal value. In a report issued July 8, the DEA concluded that marijuana “has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.”

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice is warning that large distributors of medical marijuana can be targeted for federal prosecution even in states where the drug has been legalized for medical purposes.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, including Maine and Vermont. Maine has permitted the use of medical marijuana since 1999, but not until a full decade later did the state amend its law to establish marijuana dispensaries that provide legal access to the drug.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has since selected eight non-profit corporations to set up dispensaries in each of the state’s eight health districts. Each dispensary must cultivate its own crop of cannabis. Canuvo, the dispensary serving York County, will open soon in Biddeford.

Sage Peterson, director of education for Canuvo, said the dispensary will offer many different types of marijuana.

“The beauty of it is that there are different strains providing relief to different patients in different ways,” she said. 

The list of debilitating conditions that can make a Maine patient eligible for medical marijuana includes cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s and nail-patella syndrome. Symptoms it can treat include pain, nausea, seizures, muscle spasms and wasting syndrome. 

Medical marijuana users in Maine currently must register with the state. That will change in the fall when the state moves to a certification system, the details of which are still being determined.

According to Cathy Cobb, director of Maine’s Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, there are currently almost 1,700 patients registered in the state’s medical marijuana program, along with more than 200 individual physicians. Each patient is allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and up to six plants, which must be kept in an enclosed, locked facility.

Dispensaries do not distribute marijuana seeds or plants, only the ready-to-smoke product. Patients or caregivers must acquire their own plants, although legal avenues to do so are limited. Cobb called it the dilemma of “original sin”—as long as you’re registered to possess it, the state won’t ask where you got it. The law is similar in Vermont, where there are no dispensaries.

Cobb acknowledged that federal authorities have the right to raid even state-sanctioned dispensaries in Maine, but that’s unlikely. So far, raids have mainly focused on dispensaries in California and other states with looser regulations.

“People in the state of Maine who are legally participating in our state program believe that by doing so the federal government will not direct its resources in this area, although they certainly have the right to do so,” Cobb said.

Canuvo recently held an intake meeting with prospective patients. Peterson spoke of an elderly patient who was concerned about the Department of Justice’s potential crackdown on dispensaries. The DOJ’s promise not to go after individual users of medical pot isn’t all that reassuring if they “totally crush the supply chain,” she said.

“What’s she supposed to do, go hobbling outside and grow her own? I mean, that’s just not gonna happen,” Peterson said.

The New Hampshire Legislature has repeatedly come close to legalizing medical marijuana. A bill passed the House and Senate in 2009 only to be vetoed by Gov. John Lynch. Another bill passed the House overwhelmingly in March but was tabled by the Senate. Lynch had threatened to veto House Bill 442 if it reached his desk.

Nancy Grossman lobbied for the legalization of medical marijuana in 2009. So did Seacoast resident Burt Cohen, who served seven terms in the state senate. Cohen was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2007 and underwent 24 weeks of treatment. He said the medications sapped his energy and made him feel sick.

“You feel pretty bad. It’s like a combination of low-grade flu and hangover for most of that time,” he said. “A lot of people—a full third, I think—drop out because they just can’t take it anymore.”

To alleviate the effects of the medication and help ease him though the treatment, Cohen got some pot. He did not want to engage in illegal activity in front of his two young daughters, so he waited until they were asleep to light up.

“I managed to sneak use of it twice after they went to bed, and when I did that, I didn’t feel high. I just felt normal,” he said. “Those were the only times in 24 weeks when I felt normal.”

Cohen told his personal story during a House committee hearing in 2009, admitting in front of a legislative body that he had smoked marijuana illegally.

“It’s not easy to acknowledge that, especially as a former lawmaker myself,” he said. “But why should people have to sneak it? I was thinking, ‘Why should I have to sneak it? This is a perfectly legitimate treatment.’”

Cohen is confident that medical marijuana will pass in New Hampshire, eventually. So is Kirk McNeil, director of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. He’s gearing up to campaign on behalf of four marijuana-related bills the legislature will take up this fall, at least one of which will deal specifically with medical marijuana.

McNeil was encouraged that HB 442 passed the N.H. House by a lopsided vote of 221-96. He believes the Senate’s decision to table the bill was politically motivated. 

“I do think that the tabling by the Senate was a maneuver, very frankly, to avoid discussing the topic at the current time,” he said.

McNeil said mismanagement of medical pot programs in places like California has led to a “stunning lack of imagination on the part of the DEA.”

“Well-crafted legislation regarding medical marijuana simply puts another choice in the hands of doctors and patients,” he said.

The DEA’s recent ruling on marijuana came in response to a petition filed in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis. The petition sought to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug, which cannot be prescribed by physicians, to a Schedule III, IV or V drug, which would potentially allow its use for medical purposes.

It took the DEA almost nine years to deny the petition, and its ruling came less than two months after the petitioners filed a lawsuit demanding a response.  

“Their strategy of delay is fairly evident,” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, one of the petitioners.

Hermes said the DEA’s ruling was “discouraging” but “certainly not unexpected.” The denial of the petition merely maintains the status quo, he said. The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis quickly appealed the decision on July 21. Oral arguments will likely begin within six to eight months.

Hermes noted that the number of states that allow medical marijuana has doubled since the petition was originally filed in 2002, and public support remains strong (an ABC News/Washington Post Poll conducted in January 2010 found that 81 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical uses).

“I think the direction we’re moving is forward. And this is despite the government’s attempts to push back against the advancement of medical cannabis being used in a widespread fashion,” he said. 

DEA spokesman Rusty Payne denied that the agency delayed a ruling on the petition. It was first taken up by the Department of Health and Human Services, which passed it on to the DEA in 2006 with a recommendation to deny it. Over the past five years, Payne said, the DEA has conducted a lengthy review of the petition.

“There are a lot of people out there that think we’re not looking into this, that we’ve just basically shut the door on marijuana, and that’s just not true,” Payne said. “We’re not holding up the study on marijuana.”

In fact, he said, the agency has more than 200 qualified experts who have been studying the risks and benefits of medical marijuana. 

And yet, the DEA’s denial of the petition repeatedly cites a lack of adequate studies on the matter. A section of the ruling explaining the assertion that marijuana has no “accepted medical uses” reads: “The drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”

So, if the DEA’s 200-plus experts have been studying the medicinal merits of cannabis for at least the last five years, why are they citing a lack of adequate studies in their argument against it?

“We don’t have studies that have progressed to the stage required to consider marijuana for use to treat any condition,” Payne said.

Kris Hermes isn’t buying it.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hermes said. “It’s just very disingenuous to say there has been an inadequate number of studies.”

Dr. Donald Abrams, of the University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, has authored numerous studies on the drug’s efficacy. An oncologist for 31 years, Abrams said the center has demonstrated that cannabis can be effective for treating HIV, AIDS and cancer, particularly for patients going through chemotherapy.

“I don’t need to do a clinical trial to know that these people are benefiting from using cannabis to decrease nausea and vomiting, increase their appetite, help them sleep, and decrease pain and depression,” he said. “Anybody who lives in the real world can appreciate that cannabis has medicinal benefits.” 

Regarding the health hazards of marijuana and its potential for abuse, Abrams said pot is safer than widely available substances like tobacco and alcohol.

What’s more, a number of medically accepted pharmaceuticals and drugs have developed significant problems with abuse, including OxyContin, methadone, morphine, Valium, Vicodin, Percocet, Klonopin, Ritalin, Adderall, and anabolic steroids. So, why have these drugs received government approval but not marijuana?

“They have a legitimate medical purpose, as born out by science and studies,” Payne said.

Still, for supporters of medical marijuana, there is reason to be optimistic. Congressmen Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) have introduced a bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and let individual states establish their own rules for the drug. At least two presidential candidates—Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson—support the decriminalization of marijuana.

And, here in New Hampshire, a new spate of bills will go before the legislature in the fall seeking to make marijuana a legitimate medical drug.

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