Poles apart on medical marijuana

August 03, 2004

Paul Boerger, Mt. Shasta News

The medical marijuana debate has polarized into extreme positions.

On one fist, the federal government classifies marijuana as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug along with heroin.

Meanwhile, 10 states, including California, have opened a hand for legalized marijuana use for medical purposes with a doctor's recommendation.

In Siskiyou County, the Sheriff's Department is seeking guidelines so that legitimate Proposition 215 growers and users can operate without legal harassment and local medical practitioners have varied views on marijuana's medical applications. 

These diametrically opposed positions have resulted in agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency arresting growers, distributors and users of medical marijuana, while at the same time California cities license medical marijuana clubs for growing the plant and distributing to patients.

Patients with a variety of diseases, including various cancers and HIV/AIDS, claim that smoking marijuana relieves symptoms of chemotherapy and the disease, including pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting and appetite stimulation.

Although a variety of clinical trials have been conducted or are under way, no definitive report has been accepted by the the federal government as proof that marijuana has medicinal effects.

In California, the 1996 Proposition 215 legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes including growing it for personal use and distribution. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court rejected Proposition 215 by an 8-0 vote, affirming the federal position that marijuana is a dangerous drug with 'no medicinal value.'

The State of California Medical Board, however, recognizes a physician's right to prescribe marijuana and states that it will not take action against doctors who recommend marijuana.

On the other hand, the federal government has taken action to pull licenses from doctors that recommend marijuana.

To confuse matters further, lower federal courts have recently found in favor of medical marijuana on a number of issues including sentencing growers and users to lenient sentences under 'the least possible harm' guidelines and blocking federal actions against clubs and patients.

After the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently barred the US Justice Department from prosecuting two California women who claim marijuana is beneficial for their illnesses, the Bush administration appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court and the court will hear the case next year.

During a Neighborhood Watch meeting in Hornbrook July 31st, Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Melum said the department finds Proposition 215 'not concise' and 'vague.'

Melum said assistant district attorney Tim Pappas is developing guidelines that will protect Prop. 215 growers and patients as opposed to illegal marijuana planters.

Melum said the issues are complex with questions of how many plants are legitimate for medicinal purposes and how to keep open gardens from being burglarized by children or others.

How many plants should be allowed in a single plot is further complicated by the fact that single growers often provide for numerous patients, Melum said.

'We don't want to harass legitimate 215 people,' Melum said. 'But we need some guidelines in place.'

Melum said one possibility is to register Prop. 215 growers and users so the Sheriff's Department will know not to take legal action when confronted with marijuana gardens or people in legitimate possession of medicinal marijuana.

Whether marijuana has medicinal properties is hotly debated.

The DEA claims that synthetic Marinol, legal by prescription, contains the active marijuana ingredient THC to relieve pain, nausea and vomiting and stimulate appetite.

While the National Cancer Institute says smoking marijuana delivers THC to the system quicker than orally taken Marinol, the NCI questions whether the harmful effects of smoking and the difficulty in determining dosage from marijuana cigarettes is consistent with good medicine.

Other groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the American Medical Marijuana Association unabashedly favor medical marijuana, citing numerous patient claims that marijuana relieved symptoms of their diseases and treatments such as chemotherapy.

Anna Antonowich-Jonsson, an oncology nurse practitioner at Mercy Medical Center Redding, says she does not recommend marijuana, but she has had patients who have used it for medical purposes.

'Those who used marijuana prior to getting sick appear to get some relief and didn't like Marinol,' Antonowich-Jonsson said. 'Those with no marijuana history don't really like it. I really don't see people asking for it that much.'

Antonowich-Jonsson said that with the federal government opposed to medical marijuana and in control of the prescription process, 'It's just not worth it for those few who ask for it.'

She said in the last 10 years great strides have been made in managing the effects of cancer treatment.

'We have much better pharmaceuticals than we had in the past,' Antonowich-Jonsson said. 'There is a huge difference in what we have now to treat vomiting, nausea and other symptoms.'

Antonowich-Jonsson said that homeopathic, naturopathic, guided imagery and breathe work have also been integrated into cancer treatment.

She cites a concern with medicinal marijuana regarding that it is most often smoked as the delivery method.

'Our patients are immune suppressed,' Antonowich-Jonsson said. 'Marijuana is unfiltered and untreated.'

'Most of our patients are very sick, want their senses intact and don't ask for it,' Antonowich-Jonsson said.

Mount Shasta physician Jim Parker does not currently recommend medical marijuana, but is considering doing so in the future.

'Medical indications are that it can provide help in relieving migraines, nausea, pain, depression, anxiety and stimulate appetite,' Parker said.

Parker said he has prescribed Marinol and patients report it helps in relieving nausea.

'In my experience, it is previous marijuana users that ask for it,' Parker said.

Parker said he also gets requests for a marijuana recommendation for non-medical uses.

'That sets up trust and integrity issues,' Parker said. 'I won't go in that direction.'

Parker said the medical profession 'is behind in treating pain, anxiety and depression.'

'Medical marijuana is a new concept and it will take a while for physicians to warm up to the idea,' Parker said. 'In the future, I predict that I will suggest it for the appropriate condition.'

Parker, however, is not without reservations for marijuana use.

'Chronic marijuana use can lead to a decrease in testosterone with sexual disfunction, memory loss, amotivational behavior and respiratory problems from smoking,' Parker said. 'Driving is also impaired as marijuana stays in the system for up to 30 days.' 

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