Cohen plans to push legalizing medical marijuana, faces battle

November 15, 2004

Holly Edwards, The Tennessean

After watching several friends suffer the side effects of cancer treatment, state Sen. Steve Cohen said he plans to make the legalization of medical marijuana one of his top priorities next year.

The proposal probably will face stiff opposition in the state legislature, where the Republican Party is enjoying its first elected majority in the Senate in more than a century.

''I don't think I'd be willing to consider it,'' said Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is vying to become Senate speaker. ''There's not enough medical evidence to support that, and most law enforcement agencies would be opposed to it.''

Cohen, D-Memphis, said he 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,'' Cohen said. ''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 available for those conditions.

And, echoing the argument of other opponents, Black said she believes medical marijuana is being used as a ploy by those who want to legalize the drug completely.

''The whole issue is a ruse for saying marijuana should be a legal product,'' she 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. Walker is one of about 10 area residents working with a statewide network called the Tennessee Alliance for Medical Marijuana.

She said she would like to use marijuana for her weight loss and pain without risking jail time.

Some studies have shown that marijuana can stimulate appetite and promote weight gain as well as ease pain.

''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.''

Another medical marijuana advocate, 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,'' said Kuhn, 61. ''That was the best prescription around, and it wasn't that good.''

Opponents of medical marijuana say it would make no sense for a doctor to recommend that a sick, weakened person regularly inhale smoke laced with carcinogens.

David Black, president of Aegis Sciences Corp., a drug-testing company, said he did his doctoral research on medical marijuana and found limited medical benefits of the drug. It also has a number of health risks.

''Marijuana use involves a deeper inhalation of cancer-causing chemicals and acute intoxication,'' said Black, who is Rep. Diane Black's husband. ''It would be like taking the worst elements of tobacco and alcohol and turning them loose as a prescribed drug.''

Black also said he believes medical marijuana is being used as a ''red herring'' by organizations pushing for full legalization of the drug.

One of the leading advocacy groups for medical marijuana, the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington makes no secret of its dual support of medical marijuana and the legalization of the drug.

Citing a 2002 Time/CNN nationwide poll showing 80% of Americans supported medical marijuana use, Krissy Oechslin, a spokeswoman for the group, said medical marijuana is a distinct issue with broad public support.

''So many people support it that it's sort of surprising that legislators have been afraid to touch it,'' she said.

''But I think eventually the point will get across, as more states consider it, that they won't be hurt for supporting it.''

Medical marijuana has been legalized in liberal and conservative states. Of the 10 states that have approved medical marijuana use, four voted solidly in favor of President George W. Bush in the last election. In Alaska, where 43% of voters supported a ballot initiative legalizing all marijuana use, Bush won 62% of the popular vote.

And three conservative southeastern states — Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi — have filed court briefs supporting California's efforts to keep medical marijuana legal.

According to Stuart Finder, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University, 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,'' said Finder, director of Vanderbilt's Center for Clinical and Research Ethics. ''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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