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Arkansas State Dept of Health Opposes Medical MJ

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Feb. 4, 00
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (AR)
Copyright: 2000 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Author: Rebecca Pilcher
A Fayetteville-based group plans to push ahead on efforts to convince Arkansas voters to legalize medicinal marijuana, but it can't expect support from the state Department of Health. The group's proposal would require the state agency to help administer a medicinal marijuana program, but the department said Thursday it opposes such use because of the scientific findings of marijuana's dangers.
The Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas is one of three parties campaigning for ballot initiatives either to reduce criminal penalties for having small amounts of marijuana or to allow its use without penalty for medicinal purposes. Controlled doses of inhaled marijuana can ease nausea and stimulate the appetite of chronically ill and terminally ill patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, said Denele Campbell of Fayetteville, the alliance's president.
The group wants to collect 70,000 signatures on its petitions. Campbell said the group won't turn in any petitions to the secretary of state's office unless it gets at least 60,000 signatures. The group has until early July to get the signatures of nearly 57,000 registered voters needed to get its proposal on the ballot. If the initiative makes the ballot and voters approve it, Arkansas would join Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in the approval of medicinal marijuana. The alliance's initiative calls for physicians who deem marijuana necessary in the treatment of their patients to notify the state Department of Health. The Health Department would then be required to issue a registry identification card to the patient, which would state the patient could legally smoke certain amounts of marijuana determined by the doctor. The cards would also protect the patients from criminal charges if they did not exceed the amount of marijuana they were allowed to have. The Health Department does not approve of the medicinal use of marijuana.
The department issued a statement Thursday outlining its position on the issue. "Scientific research has shown marijuana to be harmful to a person's brain, heart, lungs, immune system, memory, perception, judgment and motivation," the statement, issued in response to media inquiries, said. "Use of marijuana as a beneficial medicine projects a false and fraudulent message contradicting current scientific knowledge and research." The Health Department's statement said that arguments for marijuana's medicinal use are "largely based on emotional appeals and anecdotal accounts of physical or psychological efficiency. More harmful health outcomes are likely to occur in most patients from the medicinal use of marijuana than solutions to existing health problems." The statement said a prescription drug contains the main component of marijuana without the negative effects of smoked marijuana.
The drug, Marinol, is composed primarily of tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly knows as THC, said William D. Wessinger, associate professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Marinol is a Federal Drug Administration-approved drug available through prescription, Wessinger said. "Marinol is not interchangeable with marijuana," Campbell said. "It's like saying pure grain alcohol is the same as a glass of red wine. There are other things in marijuana other than the active ingredient." For some patients, Marinol tends to provide too strong a dose, Campbell said. Patients allowed to smoke marijuana would have more control over their dosages, she said. Campbell said she is not surprised by the Health Department's reaction, but ultimately "it's not up to them.
The state is controlled by the citizens." The Health Department has not made any provisions for administering a medicinal marijuana program, according to the statement issued Thursday. "They're obviously not very well informed on the issue," Campbell said. "We are not surprised, because there's been a lot of hysteria in formulating drug policy. One of our tasks is to bring the level of education and knowledge up. We couldn't expect anyone to support medical marijuana when they don't even know the therapeutic uses of marijuana, which, obviously if [the Health Department is] making that statement, they don't."
Campbell said she remains optimistic the initiative will get on the ballot. "We've got hundreds of petitions out there," Campbell said. "If even half are filled up, we've got thousands [of signatures]." The alliance has distributed petitions in Washington, Madison, Benton, Carroll, Sebastian, Johnson, Boone, Marion, Baxter, Pulaski, Hot Springs, Faulkner, Garland, Perry, Saline and Van Buren counties, she said.
The Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, also known as NORML, is also making a push to put a marijuana issue on the ballot, as is a North Little Rock man, Barry Emigh. The reform group's initiative proposes that possession of an ounce or less of marijuana be punishable by no more than $200 and no prison time. Emigh's initiative would allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes without a doctor's prescription and would reduce the penalty for possession of a half-ounce or less to a $75 fine. The alliance's proposal differs from the other two initiatives in that it would require a doctor's prescription for marijuana use.
State Rep. Jim Lendall, D-Mabelvale, proposed a bill during the state's 82nd General Assembly in 1999 that would have permitted medical use of marijuana. Lendall is a registered nurse who contends that marijuana is safer than such drugs as morphine. "I've known enough people outside of my work who have had cancer, MS [multiple sclerosis], and other illnesses where marijuana appeared to alleviate some of the symptoms, or at least allowed some of the other medications to work better," Lendall said. "Unfortunately, the current atmosphere has made it very difficult to advocate it." Lendall said he hopes the medicinal marijuana movement is successful, and if it isn't, he plans to push for similar legislation during next year's legislative session.
The American Medical Association favors allowing the National Institutes of Health to conduct controlled "well-designed clinical research into the medical utility of marijuana. ... The AMA believes that the NIH should use its resources and influence to support the development of a smoke-free inhaled delivery system for marijuana ... to reduce the health hazards associated with the combustion and inhalation of marijuana," according to a statement by the American Medical Association. The group's position calls for study but advocates the freedom for doctors to discuss treatment options with their patients. The group "believes that effective patient care requires the free and unfettered exchange of information on treatment alternatives and that discussion of these alternatives between physicians and patients should not subject either party to criminal sanctions."
The Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas is to meet at noon Saturday at the Fayetteville Public Library. The meeting will include the telling of stories of patients prosecuted for medical marijuana use, Campbell said. "Hopefully at some point there will be a little bit more compassion and a little bit more common sense," she said.