In Case You Missed 'Montel'

October 02, 2005

Fred Gardner, Counter Punch

Montel Williams devoted his Sept. 14 talk show to medical marijuana -a subject he feels strongly about. Williams, who is in his late 40s, has multiple sclerosis and uses marijuana for pain relief. Earlier this year he held a press conference to advise the powers that be that he's breaking the law every day. He has not been fired by Fox or arrested.

The Sept. 14 "Montel" is being hailed by reformers as a breakthrough event that carried "our" message to millions of viewers in a most persuasive way. Two patients who owe their lives to marijuana, Angel Raich and Irvin Rosenfeld, joined Williams on stage along with the mother and grandmother of a young patient named Jeffrey. Five other panelists contributed to the discussion from the front row: Donald Abrams, MD, an AIDS and cancer specialist from UC San Francisco; Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project; Don Murphy a politician from Maryland; Andrea Barthwell, MD, formerly of the Drug Czar's office; and Roger Curtiss, an addiction specialist from a treatment center in Montana.

Angel Raich's story came first, accompanied by scrapbook photos and recent footage of her at home. A young mother of two rendered immobile by a brain tumor, seizures, fibromyalgia, degenerative joint disease, wasting syndrome... In a wheelchair for four years. Couldn't use the right side of her body. "I tried all the drugs, nothing was working. My daughter asked 'Why can't you do the things other mommies do?"

In August '97 Angel attempted suicide. Then, she said, "A nurse pulled me aside and said, 'Have you ever tried medical marijuana?' I was extremely offended. That's a crime.... I was very conservative, a mother of two, all I could think of was the cops coming to put me in handcuffs." But out of desperation she tried it, and a year-and-a-half later she stopped using a wheelchair. Her inoperable brain tumor is stable and she's a functioning mom.

Over footage of Angel inhaling mist from a Volcano vaporizer, Montel reminded the audience to "Get rid of the image of smoking it. Three days a week I don't smoke it at all, I eat it." And with that he broke for commercials:

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Montel held some file cards in his hand containing points he would make during the course of the show. He started the second segment with a few stats: the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows a 5% decline in 12-17 year olds who have used pot, and a 15% rise in prescription-drug use among 18-25 year-olds; five million Ritalin prescriptions filled last year in this country Montel shook his head in dismay and continued to do so as Angel described her civil suit against the feds. "The federal government started raiding patients, providers and caregivers in the medical marijuana community I was afraid of being raided and losing my life In fear, I filed suit against Attorney General Ashcroft and DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson." (Applause .) Angel didn't get a chance to explain why federal law doesn't apply, according to a federal appeals court, or that Raich v. Ashcroft will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in late November, because it was time for the next guest to tell her heart-wrenching story.

Debbie Jeffrey's account of her son Jeffrey's miserable childhood was also accompanied by pictures of him growing up. Debbie started out in a little girl's voice. There was something disconcerting about the way she recounted her son's problems: "I first realized that there were issues with Jeffrey when he was about nine months old with temper tantrums that were not normal temper tantrums." The doctors she brought him to diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and other pseudo-clinical conditions concocted by the authors of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual. They put him on Adderall, Clonazepam, Clonidine, Depakote, Dexadrine, Imipramine, Mellarel, Neurontin Risperal, Ritalin, Seroquel, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and Zyprexa. "Adult maximum doses," recalled the mom, "and you never knew what the side effects were going to be. At age four he had robots talking to him telling him to kill me"

Debbie Jeffreys heard about and researched the medical effects of marijuana (video of Debbie at her computer). "Jeffrey's life changed immediately when he started taking this medication," she told Montel. "He got this smile on his face and said 'Mommy, I feel happy, my head's not noisy.'"

Jeffrey's grandmother confirmed the transformation. She said Jeffrey became "quieter, not angry." He was placed back in public school and made friends for the first time The grandmother emphasized that she and her daughter had no pro-marijuana inclinations. "We are a conservative Christian family. We thought medical marijuana was just a way for tie-dyed hippy people to get stoned."

Break for ads, including, "On the next Montel, Sylvia Browne, What do your dreams mean?'" Montel focuses on the occult every Wednesday and psychic Sylvia is a regular guest.

Montel asked Debbie Jeffreys where things stood. Debbie, on the verge of tears, said "The DEA raided the farm where we were able to get marijuana and they took it away. Everyone in the collaborative... WAMM... worked together to try to get the right blend of marijuana, but we were never able to reproduce it. So, unfortunately, Jeffrey's been in a residential facility for over a year now."

Maybe to viewers whose daily intake includes Ricky Lake and Dr. Phil and such, this melodramatic answer seemed like the whole truth and nothing but but it sounded too pat For sure Valerie Corral of WAMM had developed a special blend for Jeffrey, using all her knowledge and experience as a compounding herbalist and it got taken when the DEA raided the Corrals' property. But there were significant other changes in Jeffrey's environment at this time -Debbie's remarriage, for one, which she did not mention on Montel- more likely to have thrown him for a loop than a change in blend of medicine. It's also likely that a sensitive kid would have been profoundly shaken by the raid itself. Imagine how it must have sounded to his ears: all these kind grown-ups who have been helping you suddenly get arrested at gunpoint and reduced to tears, their garden chopped down, their lives turned upside-down, their futures uncertain How could you not feel guilty and terrified? The raid on WAMM in September 2002 changed the set and setting for Jeffrey's subsequent use of marijuana -freighted it with upsetting associations, undermining its efficacy You'd think the lack of a happy ending would keep the mother and grandmother off the publicity trail, but a revised edition of Debbie's book, "Jeffrey's Journey," is due to be published in February '05 by Ed Rosenthal's company, and the Marijuana Policy Project has granted them $20,000 just to publicize it.

Montel, over the faint hum of almost-breaktime muzak: "The people of a state spoke: they said, 'We believe that in our state we believe we have a right to have doctors prescribe medical marijuana... The federal government steps in and destroys the whole process When we come back we're going to meet a man who gets his pot from Uncle Sam."

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Now we're back with Montel and Irvin Rosenfeld, the broker from Boca Raton (actually, Fort Lauderdale). At age 10 Irvin was playing shortstop for a little league team (scrapbook shot of a cute kid in uniform), threw out the last batter to end the game, tried to toss his glove in the air to celebrate, and his arm wouldn't move. Diagnosed with a rare congenital condition in which tumors form on the ends of his bones. Tried every conventional medicine and underwent seven operations to remove 40 tumors; some 200 remain. Tried marijuana in college "in response to peer pressure" and discovered that it relieved the tension in his muscles and reduced his pain. Accepted into the federal Investigational New Drug program in November, 1982, he has been smoking 10 NIDA-supplied marijuana cigarettes a day ever since.

Rosenfeld had brought with him a silver-colored can, about 6 inches in diameter; the camera zoomed in for a close-up of the label. "Every 25 days I go to a pharmacy and pick up this can, 11 ounces of marijuana, approximately 300 cigarettes"

Montel hammered home the unfairness of the government banning marijuana for medical use and yet providing it to a small group of citizens. Rosenfeld said that as of 1992 there were 13 patients in the program (five of whom had AIDS) and 28 whose applications had been approved by the DEA, FDA, and NIDA. But with AIDS patients beginning to apply in large numbers, George H.W. Bush closed the program to new applicants -and those on the waiting list. Today there are seven surviving patients who get government marijuana through the program, two of whom have remained private.

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Comes now the introduction of five guests seated in the front row. Montel asked: "Do we live in a democratic society? If we live in a democratic society, and in nine states the people have spoken, why does not the government have to listen?" He addressed the question to Andrea Barthwell, MD, a middle-aged black woman with a calm, professional air, who until a few months ago had been a deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Barthwell set forth the federal/medical establishment line in terms that have barely changed since NIH director Harold Varmus first articulated it in response to the passage of Prop 215: "The problem with trying to bring medications to the market place through a popular vote," she said, "just is setting modern medicine back to the turn of the [20th] century. We evolved a process through which we would evaluate botanicals, biologicals, even a molecule that we found in the lab. And we would manipulate that in a way to increase its efficacy, reduce its side effects, and bring it to the people in a way that protected the public health. To say that we're going to set medicine back to the turn of the century when snake oil salesmen handed out medications from the back of stagecoaches really doesn't move us forward..."

Montel, was on his feet with Irv's can of NIDA-grown cannabis: "We're not handing it out in stagecoaches! The government is sending this out Your doctors approved the protocol."

"There are some exceptions," Barthwell acknowledged, "and there are other patients that could get it through exceptions, but what we know is that the Institute of Medicine, independent scientists who determine medicine in this country, scientists and physicians, not by popular vote, determined that there was potential for medication development from marijuana, but that the research should follow the same scientific principles that we follow for all other medications."

Rosenfeld put in, "I've been getting this medicine for 22 years from the federal government, and they don't want to research me. They don't even want to know what's happening with me." A few years ago he and three other patients went, at private expense, to the University of Montana for complete medical evaluations. "And we all came out normal," he said. "My lung capacity was 108 percent of normal." Nor is he lacking in energy and motivation, Rosenfeld pointed out over footage of him at his desk in a brokerage firm, dealing with five matters at once.

Donald Abrams, MD, also commented on the biased federal approach to research. In the late '90s Abrams conducted a federally funded study to determine the safety of smoked marijuana in AIDS patients taking protease inhibitors. "At that time we could not use the federal government's marijuana to show that it might be beneficial because NIDA has a mandate from Congress that they could only supply marijuana for research to show that it might be dangerous," said Abrams. "Subsequently NIDA has changed their mechanism so we can look for benefit."

Barthwell reiterated: "In looking at the crude botanical, it has not met the test of medicine." She was nodding as if in agreement with herself when Montel confronted her. "If it hasn't met the test, then you shouldn't be giving it. But since you're shipping it, it must have met some test. [Pointing towards Angel] This woman can barely survive... I see the look on your face, but you're not living what she's living. You don't know what I'm living, or what this lady's living. You can't even get to it all. And yet you sit here and say we have to still do studies. Well, while you're till doing studies, let the government deliver it to me! [Applause. Barthwell continued to smile tolerantly.]

Montel brandished a bottle of hydrocodone. "I can take one to two tablets every four hours. It takes me 20 of these a days to knock down my pain. I can read in the PDR all the adverse effects of this drug. I'm not talking about drugs for other people. I'm talking about that woman is dying, I can barely walk. Why can't the federal government expand this program to include people like myself so that I don't have to worry about getting locked up?"

We'll be right back.

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Montel's next guest, former Maryland state delegate Don Murphy described himself as "a law-and-order Republican." Murphy said he'd had a constituent, "a Green Beret Republican farmer from a rural county" with late stage cancer who claimed he needed marijuana in order to eat. Murphy believed him and drafted a compassionate-use bill that eventually passed and "was signed into law by a Republican governor" with the constituent's name attached to it.

Murphy modestly asserted that his opposition to needle exchange and other measures favored by drug-policy reformers "makes my position more powerful." Not to everybody, Murph. Some of us hear, behind every self-congratulatory pro-marijuana declaration by right wingers and "Christian conservatives," unspoken retained prejudices. What if your constituent had been a black single mother or a Jewish anti-war activist? Would their claims that marijuana relieves cancer-related nausea and pain have been less believable?

In turning to his next guest, Montel focused the conversation on the need for reform -but in a way that narrowly limited the options. "This is so simple," he said. "Why not just change it from Schedule one to Schedule two? What is the problem? What is the fear? Schedule-one drugs supposedly have no efficacy whatsoever. Marijuana is in that category along with PCP and heroin. Schedule two, though, is cocaine, morphine. So are you saying to me, 'Montel, you should be a cocaine addict or an Oxycontin drooler rather than a functioning member of society?'"

MPP honcho Rob Kampia was up next, and instead of pointing out that even Schedule two would be too restrictive -Marinol is on Schedule three- he did an oblique fund-raising pitch. "Well, I'll tell ya, with our annual budget of five million, I'll trade our budget for the federal drug budget any day of the week." Kampia's relentless and successful fund-raising has made him the most powerful individual in the medical marijuana movement today. His instincts are the opposite of radical, and although some of the $5 million a year he allocates goes to righteous projects, he's wasteful, plays favorites, and is an unattractive spokesperson (looking always as if he was sucking on something sour).

Montel put it out there again, "Schedule one or Schedule two?" and got a non-sequitur response from Roger Curtiss, the addiction specialist with wire-rimmed glasses and a perfectly trimmed little beard. "Let me back up a second," Curtiss began. "I understand the pain that people in this audience and on stage are talking about. I understand your pain.

Montel: You hear it but you don't understand it.

Curtiss: Yes, I understand it. I deal with it day in, day-out.

Montel: Do you have it yourself?

Curtiss: I'm a recovering alcohol addict, 25 years. What I need to tell you is, day in and day out, I deal with people's pain physically, spiritually mentally, the whole nine yards. My best friend died with cancer July 14, and I sat by his side all the way-

Montel (striding over and leaning into Curtiss's face): You sat by his side but you never felt how he felt. And I'm tired of hearing people tell me they know how I feel 'cause you do not. You don't know that I can't take my toes and let them run down a sheet. You don't know that when I go to the bathroom my leg hurts from my toes to my hip.

Curtiss: I feel your pain. Yes I do.

Angel: What about someone like me who can't take other drugs? Do you want me to just die?

Curtiss: (placing his hand to his heart, as if pledging allegiance) As far as I know there are prescription drugs that can help her problem.

Abrams, a real doctor, had some relevant info for Williams "In our studies of HIV patients with painful feet -peripheral neuropathy- animal studies have already demonstrated that marijuana, where opioids don't work, works for nerve pain."

"I am one of your walking, living examples," said Williams over breaktime Muzak. Cut to

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Montel: What is the fear of making it a schedule two drug?

Barthwell: When I was with the federal government... There really was no fear if it had met the test of schedule 2. But Montel, the real story here is not to give people a crude botanical and have them smoke it or chew it or bake it or vaporize it, the real story here is that we know that there are constituent parts of marijuana that show tremendous problems [she must have meant 'promise'] both as agonists - they stimulate the receptor - and as antagonists - they block the receptor. And we are on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough that will probably take 10 to 15 years to complete (groans from audience and panel) and our scientific money has to be spent to develop these drugs and medications in the way in which we do all drugs.

Montel: Our top ally, London, they have just approved a product by a company called GW GW took the plant apart and they have come up with a mucosal spray. Right now it's in a pause but it will be approved for distribution in London So you're telling me that British doctors are smarter than US doctors?

Barthwell: They [GW] have made a decision that the constituent parts of marijuana won't have their effect unless they are delivered in a milieu much like the plant, so they've macerated the plant and they can deliver it in a particular milieu, and it is in clinical trials. They have not demonstrated its efficacy and if they do it will be considered by the FDA here for importation.

Montel pointed out that AIDS drugs had been fast-tracked and approved in two to three years. Abrams, who sounded as reasonable and intelligent as you'd want your doctor to be, said "I'm a cancer doctor and an HIV doctor, and if I have a drug that gives people relief of pain, increases their appetite, decreases nausea, and perhaps improves their mood, that's an important drug to be able to give people, especially with cancer who are at the end of their life."

Abrams described a historically significant episode that revealed how the medical establishment -not just the government- has upheld prohibition. "In 1997 after the law was changed in California, Jerome Kassirer, who was Editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, wrote an editorial on medical marijuana called 'federal foolishness,' saying 'We know this drug works, everybody has their anecdotal experience of people who have benefited from it, get over it, reschedule it, make it schedule 2.' Unfortunately," Abrams noted, "he very shortly thereafter became no longer the editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine."

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The final segment begin with a clip from the press conference at which Montel had come out as a medical marijuana user: "I'm breaking the law every day and I'm going to continue to break the law everyday because it's the only way that I can get up every morning and continue to being a functioning member of society." Applause. Cut to Montel on stage in the present.

"We call ourselves a compassionate nation, we say we want to teach the rest of the world how to be compassionate, that's why we're spending all this money trying to shove 'democracy' down people's throats. Part of compassion is understanding that we don't know all the answers. All we have to do is a basic change from schedule one to schedule two. If we think our doctors are smart enough to prescribe people morphine, cocaine, oxycontin, percocet, vicodin, oxycet... they're smart enough to say 'I think this person should utilize medicinal marijuana.'

"Write your Congressman: enough is enough."

P.S.

An activist who gets money from MPP asked, "Why take only Kampia to task for not questioning whether marijuana belonged on Schedule two? Do you hold it against him that MPP wouldn't support O'Shaughnessy's? (the journal of California's pro-cannabis doctors)." Well, of course I do. But in this situation it wasn't up to Montel Williams or Angel Raich or Irvin Rosenfeld, seriously ill people whose access to cannabis would be assured if it went to Schedule two, to question the demand for schedule two. Nor was it up to Donald Abrams, an oncologist and AIDS specialist who would be willing to write triplicate prescriptions (as entailed by Schedule two) for his patients. It was up to Kampia to state our demands because he has pushed himself forward as the voice of the movement. And our demand is ITAL not END ITAL for the classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug. There are millions of people in California and beyond whose access would actually be inhibited if marijuana was moved to Schedule Two and doctors had to prescribe it on triplicate forms.

There's also the matter of honesty and medical reality: marijuana simply doesn't belong in Schedule Two (with addictive morphine and cocaine). Marinol -a synthetic version of marijuana's strongest psychoactive component- is on Schedule three. Marijuana should have its own classification, as per its unique mechanism of action. For years California's leading authority on cannabis in clinical practice, Tod Mikuriya, MD, has advocated categorizing it as an "easement" (rather than a sedative" or "hallucinogen" as per the standard texts and formularies).

On another level it seems absurd that anybody speaking for the "movement" would embrace the demand that marijuana be moved to schedule two. Even if you think it would be a big improvement over schedule one -and in many ways it would- why open negotiations by demanding such a move? Why not keep it as your fallback position, the compromise you may be forced to accept? Why state it as your goal when it's not what you really want or know is right?

A reliable source says that Kampia tried hard to hire Andrea Barthwell after she left the employ of the drug czar in July. "We've learned we can hire our enemies," young Rob shared at the NORML conference this spring, obviously pleased with his strategic insight. He said he'd just hired a reporter from the Las Vegas Sun -a woman who'd ITAL opposed END ITAL MPP's Nevada initiative in 2002- to be the chief publicist for the 2003 re-try. This approach has revealing implications. Does Kampia assume that hirelings have no influence on MPP projects, that they merely follow orders from the top of the hierarchy? Or does he want to promote conservative influences within the movement?

"Always do the right thing, Mookie."

Holy Smoke

In the summer of '96, Father Guido Sarducci spoke at a Yes-on-215 rally at Dennis Peron's Market Street club, which also happened to be campaign headquarters. Rescheduling marijuana, said Fr. Guido, will involve a switch in patron saints. "The patron saint of marijuana has always a-been Saint Subic. But if it's a-reschedule, itta be put under Saints Maureen and Doreen, along with a-glue and 3.2 beer." Fr. Guido also said he was hoping to make monsignor because if Prop 215 passed, priests would be allowed to grow three plants but monsignors would be allowed to grow four. Prescient.

Fred Gardner can be reached at journal@ccrmg.org



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