Senator plans to make legal medical marijuana a top priority

November 16, 2004

Associated Press, WMC-TV Memphis

State Sen. Steve Cohen said the legalization of medical marijuana will be one of his top priorities next session, even though some Republicans are already disapproving of the idea. 

'I don't think I'd be willing to consider it,' said Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is vying to become speaker of the Senate, where the Republican Party is enjoying its first elected majority in more than a century. 'There's not enough medical evidence to support that, and most law enforcement agencies would be opposed to it.' 

But Cohen, D-Memphis, believes people who are sick and suffering are being denied a drug that could help them. 

'When you see somebody whose life is ending and you know there's something that would ameliorate their pain and make life less ghastly, it's incumbent upon all of us to allow it,' said Cohen, who's watched several friends battle the side effects of cancer treatment. 'There's no reason why society should not allow drugs that can be helpful.' 

In a 2003 report, the American Medical Association cited studies showing that compounds in the drug can help people suffering from a wide range of illnesses, from glaucoma and AIDS-related weight loss, to epilepsy and the nausea associated with some cancer treatments. But the association also said there are health risks involved with marijuana, and recommended that the National Institutes of Health fund further research into medical uses of the drug.

State Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, a nurse who was recently elected to the Senate, said legal prescription drugs are already available for the conditions that medical marijuana might treat. She and other opponents believe medical marijuana is being used as a ploy by those who want to completely legalize the drug. 

'The whole issue is a ruse for saying marijuana should be a legal product,' Black said. 'We have perfectly sound, legal medications that doctors can prescribe that will take care of anything marijuana can take care of.' 

Barbara Walker, 58, of Nashville said she suffers chronic back pain and weight loss associated with an immune disorder, and has experienced side effects from the oxycodone she was prescribed for pain. She is one of about 10 area residents working with a statewide network called the Tennessee Alliance for Medical Marijuana. Walker said she'd like to use the drug for her ailments, but within the law. 

'No one wants to be outside the law, but at the same time I'm the one who's living with severe pain,' she said. 'You're either miserable or scared you're going to go to jail.' 

Some studies have shown that marijuana can stimulate appetite and promote weight gain as well as ease pain. Paul Kuhn said his deceased wife found the most relief from marijuana when she was undergoing treatment for cancer. She was taking a prescription drug called Zofran for nausea, he said, but the side effects of the drug included liver damage, and the cancer had spread to her liver. 

'One puff of marijuana worked better than the Zofran,' the 61-year-old said. 'That was the best prescription around, and it wasn't that good.' 

Krissy Oechslin, a spokeswoman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, a leading advocacy group for medical marijuana, cites a 2002 Time/CNN nationwide poll showing 80 percent of Americans support medical marijuana use. 

'So many people support it that it's sort of surprising that legislators have been afraid to touch it,' Oechslin said. 'But I think eventually the point will get across, as more states consider it, that they won't be hurt for supporting it.' 

At least 10 states have approved medical marijuana use. Stuart Finder, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University, said the medical marijuana issue boils down to balancing the medical benefits of the drug with the cultural views of marijuana as an illicit substance. 

'The important ethical issue here is that it may be that our preconceptions are blinding us to the possible medical help the substance could provide,' Finder said. 'There are some indications it could be helpful, but the only way to find out is to study it. Do we risk giving up our preconceptions to look at it?' 

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