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Georgia's Drug Laws Debated



Feb 25, 00
Augusta Chronicle, The (GA)
Copyright: 2000 The Augusta Chronicle
Author: Sandy Hodson
GEORGIA'S DRUG LAWS DEBATED Quadriplegic's Conviction Raises Questions Over Use Of Marijuana As Medication If quadriplegic Louis Covar lived in California, he might be a free man today instead of being locked in a south Georgia prison cell. In a different state, Mr. Covar may have gotten the only drug he says relieves painful muscle spasms without leaving him comatose. But he is now serving a seven-year sentence imposed Feb. 17 when a judge ruled Mr. Covar had violated his probation in January by, once again, possessing marijuana. And he faces as much as 10 more years behind bars if convicted of possession of marijuana again. Mr. Covar is in intensive care at the Baldwin State Prison's outpatient clinic, according to the state's corrections department. His father, Louis Covar Sr., said he was told by a prison doctor that Mr. Covar suffered an irregular heartbeat brought on by a lack of a one of his prescribed medications. "If this patient lived in California ... he wouldn't have been sent to prison," said Chuck Thomas, director of communications for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for the reform of marijuana laws. California is one of six states, along with the District of Columbia, where voters went to the polls to decriminalize marijuana for those who use the drug for medical reasons. The Clinton administration has adamantly opposed the initiatives. "Our steadfast opposition is based on the fact that: Such electoral procedures undermine the medical-scientific process for establishing what is a safe and effective medicine; contradict federal regulations and laws; and in the Office of National Drug Control Policy's view, may be vehicles for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use," Dr. Donald R. Vereen of the Office of National Drug Control Policy told a House Committee on Appropriations last fall when members tried to keep the voters' decision about medical marijuana a secret by refusing to pay to have the ballots counted. Mr. Covar, 51, doesn't consider his use of marijuana a criminal act. He insists it relieves the painful muscle spasms he has suffered since he broke his neck in a diving accident July 4, 1967. The drugs the doctors have prescribed over the years rob him of the only thing he has left -- his mind, said his defense attorney, Hugh Hadden, who is looking forward to taking the most recent case against Mr. Covar to a jury. "Under the circumstances, (Mr. Covar) is not intentionally violating the law with any criminal intent," Mr. Hadden said. But Georgia law doesn't recognize an exception for medical excuses, District Attorney Danny Craig said. He hopes Mr. Covar will plead guilty to possession of marijuana because he admitted to having the drug at his February probation revocation hearing. Mr. Covar might only receive a concurrent sentence to the one he is now serving, Mr. Craig said. If Mr. Covar doesn't plead guilty and a judge refuses to accept the prosecutor's motion to dismiss the case or place it on the dead docket, then the case will have to be tried, Mr. Craig said. He and the officers who have charged Mr. Covar insist the paralyzed man isn't just smoking marijuana but selling it, too, although he was not charged with selling marijuana in the previous case or in the new case. Mr. Covar had one such conviction, however, in 1990. "Typically, possession offenses presumes guilty knowledge, and that's true of situations involving more than simple marijuana," said Ron Carlson, professor at the University of Georgia School of Law. "At least on the surface the case raises, in a significant way, the question if Georgia as a society should think about medical exceptions to the drug laws," Mr. Carlson said. "I think the fear of the floodgate problem, a concern that if marijuana is legalized for general use, not just for medical use exception, that it will be difficult to hold back further initiatives on more difficult drugs." In 1997, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, after an expert panel formed by the National Institutes of Health concluded marijuana could help some patients, commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine. The study report issued last March -- two months before Mr. Covar was sentenced to probation for possession of marijuana -- stated that marijuana has medical benefits and should undergo scientific trials. One of 30 suggested medical conditions that might benefit is muscle spasms suffered by spinal cord injury patients. Meanwhile, the report concluded people with chronic conditions such as severe pain or AIDS should be allowed to participate in closely monitored and documented marijuana medical programs. Juan De Lecuona, a Medical College of Georgia neurologist who treats patients like Mr. Covar, said the potential benefits of marijuana haven't been proved yet but scientific study of non-smoked forms of marijuana is very reasonable. "It's a very valuable thing we spend our money on. The only way to know is to investigate, and that's the only way for us physicians to know the answer," Dr. De Lecuona said. Meanwhile, patients like Mr. Covar do have options other than marijuana -- new medicines, physical therapy and pain medication, Dr. De Lecuona said. An implanted pump can be used to deliver drugs right to the spinal cord, and that eliminates side effects and requires less medication, he said. While Mr. Covar's complaints about his latest prescribed narcotic are valid, all drugs have side effects. Marijuana has side effects and can cause respiratory diseases, Dr. De Lecuona said. And, there's also the danger of arrest, conviction and incarceration, he said. Georgia was one of 11 states that passed a law to provide a state-sponsored program to study the use of medical marijuana for cancer and glaucoma patients. The program was discontinued in 1987 after a synthetic form of a psychoactive component of marijuana was developed and the federal government stopped supplying marijuana for the state-run programs, said Marty Smith, information officer for Georgia Community Health. But Mr. Covar wouldn't have qualified anyway because he is not a cancer or glaucoma patient, said Georgia Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta. "No one has mentioned changing it (the law) for pain, to my knowledge," he said. The issue of medical marijuana hasn't come up for discussion in the Senate, he said. Nor has it come up in the House in recent years, said Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta. "Whether or not we have the courage to do it ... I think even if you had medical evidence to support it (use of marijuana for medical reasons) it would be hard to get it past this body," Mr. Allen said. "But if a medical group came forward, I think that's something we should look at." Voters in Arizona and California were the first states to bypass their legislators and pass initiatives to decriminalize marijuana if used for medical reasons. That cannot happened in Georgia because there are no voter initiatives, and Mr. Cheeks' colleagues keep killing legislation he proposes to allow voter initiatives, he said. Meanwhile, Mr. Covar sits in prison. Each day is estimated to cost taxpayers $258.33, compared with the $47.63 per day for a typical prisoner, according to the state's corrections department. In a year's time, it will cost $94,290.46 to keep Mr. Covar behind bars, and it will cost more than $660,000 if he stays the whole seven years. Another 10 years would cost nearly a million dollars -- $942,905.
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