Blog Voices from the Frontlines
ASA Applauds Gov. Richardson’s Inclusion of Medical Marijuana in HIV/AIDS Platform - Americans for Safe AccessOn Saturday, December 1, to commemorate Worlds AIDS Day, Democratic Presidential Candidate, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson unveiled his HIV/AIDS policy platform. In addition to recognizing the need for a National AIDS Strategy, the Governor’s plan includes a provision that would permit the use of medicinal marijuana to help people living with HIV/AIDS improve pain and symptom management. The anti-emetic and analgesic properties of cannabis have been particularly useful to HIV/AIDS patients. People living with HIV/AIDS have long used cannabis to help with symptoms of HIV related illnesses ranging from wasting and loss of appetite to adherence to medications. Consequently, it is estimated that as many as 1 in 4 AIDS patients use cannabis for medical purposes. Earlier this year, the journal Neurology published the results of a clinical trial indicating that smoked marijuana can alleviate painful, peripheral HIV/AIDS-related neuropathy. Research also shows that access to cannabis may improve health care outcomes for people living with HIV/AIDS. For example individuals who use cannabis in conjunction with their antiretroviral therapy are approximately 3.3 times more likely to remain on their prescribed drug therapies than those who do not use cannabis. The Bush Administration has failed to acknowledge the growing body of evidence which demonstrate that marijuana has medical value. In fact, neither the Clinton nor the Bush Administrations have ever undertaken any effort to review or fully implement the recommendations of the 1999 Institute of Medicine (IOM) study, Marijuana and Medicine-Assessing the Science, which acknowledged that "For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication." In contrast, California and 12 other states, including New Mexico, have passed laws that authorize the use of cannabis by qualified patients who possess a recommendation from their physicians. Americans for Safe Access is encouraged by Governor Richardson’s sensitivity to the intersection of medical marijuana and HIV/AIDS. We hope other Presidential candidates will take note, and follow his lead.
In late September, DEA proposed a new rule that would effectively place dronabinol (the active chemical in MARINOL) in Schedule III. Wait a second, isn't MARINOL already in Schedule III? It is. When MARINOL was first marketed, it was placed in Schedule II. Once DEA was shown that it had a low potential for abuse, they agreed to place it in Schedule III. But the narrow language only places in Schedule III MARINOL's specific formulation (synthetically derived dronabinol, suspended in sesame oil). All other formulations remain in Schedule I.Marinol's patent is almost up, which will open up the market to generic dronabinol, as long as the rule change goes through. ASA submitted a Public Comment in support of the proposed rule change. Here are some highlights:
Primarily, the proposed rule is a positive step because in it, the DEA acknowledges, only for the second time (Marinol was the first in 1986), the obvious medical benefits of THC/dronabinol. These proposed changes also represent progress because they implicitly recognize the value of whole-plant cannabis and its capacity to extract naturally occurring THC that is bioequivalent to synthetic THC... This proposed change is also a positive development because its will likely result in greater access for patients to less expensive, naturally derived cannabis-based drugs in the short term... Generic drugs, drugs that are produced and distributed without patent protection (and approved by the FDA under 21 U.S.C. 355 § 505(j)), are generally much cheaper than brand-name drugs, such as Marinol.We go on to argue that the rule change does not go far enough, and that the DEA needs to consider rescheduling other cannabinoids:
...the DEA should initiate another proposed rule change that reschedules a wide array of natural, non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids to support the research and development of a wider variety of cannabis-based medicines. Research suggests that the beneficial therapeutic effects of cannabis may result from the interaction, or synergy, among various cannabinoids. This helps to explain why medicines developed from whole-plant extracts may be more effective than single cannabinoid drugs developed from synthetic compounds. For instance, Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine, which combines both THC and CBD to produce an entirely different therapeutic potential than THC alone, has been developed by UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals, and has been approved for use in Canada and is undergoing clinical trials in Europe and the United States...And we further argue that the DEA should end the obstructions to medical cannabis research:
...the DEA should accept the opinion of its own U.S. Department of Justice-appointed Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mary Ellen Bittner, who urges the DEA to grant a license to Professor Lyle Craker to cultivate research-grade cannabis for distribution exclusively to federally approved researchers, which would greatly facilitate research on the therapeutic value of cannabis and access to its naturally derived constituent cannabinoids, specifically THC.Please read ASA's full comment and MAPS' comment.
Fate of Medical Marijuana Patients' Right to Work Rests with the California Supreme Court - Americans for Safe AccessAnalysis of oral arguments before the California Supreme Court in Ross v. RagingWire on 6 November 2007 Unfortunately, I was not able to attend Tuesday's oral arguments before the California Supreme Court (CSC) on whether employers like RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc. have the right to discriminate against medical marijuana patients like Gary Ross. At the time the CSC granted review in November 2006, I was the Legal Campaign Director at Americans for Safe Access (ASA). Without a doubt, it was a proud day for me and everyone else at ASA to have this case finally get heard. I was equally excited, in my new role as Media Liaison at ASA, to see the extent of news coverage on this important issue, with articles in AP, SF Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, The Recorder, and FindLaw. When I viewed the oral arguments after the fact, on the California Channel, which ran a live feed from the courtroom, I was left with much optimism for a ruling that favors Ross's struggle to be free from discrimination. The three areas I felt the court focused on most were: whether RagingWire, the employer, would be unreasonably inconvenienced to be required to hire or continue to employ medical marijuana patients; whether federal law somehow prevented RagingWire from hiring or continuing to employ medical marijuana patients; and whether the People of California or the State Legislature intended to exclude medical marijuana patients from the workforce. It was my impression that ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford and attorney Stewart Katz, each acting as co-counsel arguing before the court, nailed each of those issues extremely well, while opposing counsel for RagingWire foundered and failed to provide solid responses to the court. I will attempt to detail each of the three issues below. Regarding unreasonable inconvenience, Elford rightly claimed that concerns over unlikely interference by federal law enforcement at the workplace, or elsewhere, did not rise to the level of needing to carve out a large exception to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) simply to allow employers to discriminate in this way. Nor did it rise to the level of forcing more than 200,000 medical marijuana patients in California from the workplace and denying them a right to thrive. Elford also points out that some of the existing accommodations required of employers by FEHA (he used the example of ramps for wheelchair-bound workers) far surpass any inconvenience that might be posed by accommodating the productive employment of medical marijuana patients. The Compassionate Use Act (or Proposition 215) is pretty clear in conferring "the right" to "seriously ill Californians" to "obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes." To have any meaning, this "right" must not prevent patients from earning a living. Regarding the issue of supposed state-federal conflict, it was amply answered that there is none. By granting Ross, who is a productive, disabled veteran, the same right to work as others in his field, the employer is in no way violating federal law. The Drug-Free Workplace laws pertain only to on-the-job intoxication, possession, or distribution of illegal substances. As offensive as many drug-testing requirements are, the federal government never meant Drug-Free Workplace laws to reach into the homes of productive workers. The specter of losing federal contracts is also a red herring, since such forms of punishment absent of wrongdoing (under state or federal law) by the worker(s) and employer would be unjustified and arguably illegal. Regarding the intent of the legislature, Ross wins hands down. The fact that the California Legislature only implied the right to work by indicating that employers need not accommodate on-the-job medical marijuana use compelled the court to ask multiple questions on the matter. That the legislature made note of employment in the Medical Marijuana Program Act but failed to provide employers with a blanket right to discriminate against patients speaks volumes to their right to work. However, we don't even need to go there. There should be no question as to the intent of the legislature, since an amicus 'friend of the court' brief was filed by all five of the original co-authors detailing their intent to provide medical marijuana patients the same discrimination-free opportunities as other productive workers in California. The CSC will decide this case on or before February 5, 2008. The livelihood of literally hundreds of thousands of patients is now in the delicate hands of the court. However, regardless of the outcome, the strong conviction of a majority of Californians voters and a legislature that endorsed the rights of medical marijuana patients will continue to compel us to strive for justice. For more information, see ASA's web page on the Ross v. RagingWire case, which is also located on ASA's Brief Bank page.
Sometimes, medical cannabis advocates have plenty of time to prepare in advance for an important vote at their City Council or County Board of Supervisors. We can write letters and make phone calls to elected officials, prepare a speech for public comments, and even rally the troops by inviting friends and loved ones to attend a meeting.
In other cases, however, you may have to jump and run when you learn about a challenge or opportunity in your community. That is exactly what happened last week in Orange County, when Supervisor Bates quietly introduced an ordinance that would have prohibited the County from issuing any licenses, permits, or allowances for an activity that violates local, state, or federal law. Nothing in her ordinance mentioned medical cannabis, but if adopted, it would have been a de facto ban on medical cannabis patients’ dispensaries in the unincorporated areas of Orange County. This is a tactic already used successfully in at least two Orange County cities.
County staff failed to realize the significance of Bates’ eleventh-hour proposal for medical cannabis patients until an alert aide in Supervisor’s Norby’s office realized what was about to happen – less than twenty-four hours before the vote! Supervisor Norby has always been a strong supporter of medical cannabis, and asked his staff to contact ASA right away. News reached our office at 3 PM on Monday, October 29. By that time, there were only two hours left in the workday before the Board convened to vote at 9 AM on Tuesday morning.
I left short telephone message for all five supervisors, then followed up with a longer email explaining that regulating collectives was a better option than banning them. I asked them to table the matter until they had a chance to read ASA’s report on the positive outcomes of regulations statewide and review LA County’s year-old ordinance. Then I called a handful of dedicated local advocates to invite them to speak at the Board meeting the next morning. Finally, I used ASA’s Southern California announcement list and new discussion forums to alert the grassroots of the challenge.
The other speakers and I were successful in persuading the Board to table the issue for more study, giving us the time we need to sell them on the benefits of regulation. I anticipate Orange County will now follow LA’s lead towards sensible regulations, instead of San Diego’s path of obstruction. That’s good news for patients in Orange County, and a strategic victory for the statewide campaign! As an added benefit, we were able to show some grassroots support for Supervisor Norby, who recently joined ASA in calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to stand up for patients.
The lesson from Orange County is to be prepared in advance to act quickly. Do you know where to find the telephone numbers and email addresses of your local representatives? Most cities and counties have web sites list this information. Do you know what to say if you have to speak at a meeting or to the media? (You can find talking points for issues like these on the ASA web site.) Do you know whom to call to help you out? You could organize a small group of advocates in your city to be a medical cannabis “strike force” that can act on short notice. Your local ASA Chapter is a great place to find your team.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is to make a personal commitment to act in your community when there is a challenge or an opportunity. The outcome in your city or county may depend on whether or not you and your neighbors are prepared to take responsibility for defending patients’ rights and safe access. So get prepared, stay alert, and take action… no matter how short the notice!