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Groups Advocate For Expanded Marijuana Usage

Herb Fellow

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MADISON - As Donald Christen remembers it, his father was the one who helped him decide to advocate for legalized marijuana. It happened one day about 20 years ago when Christen, 54, and some friends were at his dad's house complaining about laws banning marijuana. Finally, his father chimed in.
"'You guys ought to stop your (complaining). If you don't like the law you should get it changed,'" Christen remembers his father saying.

Christen has never looked back.

Two groups that Christen is associated with are preparing to circulate petitions to allow expanded marijuana use in Maine.

Maine Citizens for Medical Marijuana calls for an expansion of the state's existing medical marijuana law. The Maine Vocals plan to circulate a petition that simply aims to legalize marijuana.

If those petitions pass muster with the secretary of state's office, they will join another that has been circulating since November.

Maine Citizens for Patients' Rights proposes creating a system of non-profit dispensaries to provide qualifying patients with marijuana.

MAINE VOCALS

As the founder of Maine Vocals, an organization that advocates the legalization of marijuana, and the organizer of a series of marijuana-theme concerts, Christen has a long record of pushing for marijuana legalization, as well as a lengthy history of run-ins with the law for growing and trafficking.

Those convictions, along with his sometimes confrontational style, have made Christen a controversial advocate for marijuana. But nationwide, there is evidence of growing support for the medical use of marijuana, particularly for cancer and AIDS patients.

Twelve states now have laws that allow the use of marijuana for specific medical conditions, including nausea and wasting and other symptoms associated with treatment of cancer and HIV/AIDS. Two of those states -- New Mexico and Rhode Island -- passed laws in the last two years.

State officials, however, say that the use of marijuana as therapy is problematic at best.

New drugs that are safer and more effective than marijuana have greatly weakened the case for its medical use. Prosecutors and law enforcement say Maine's existing law -- passed by referendum in 1999 -- is often used as a shield by dealers.

In the end, voters will decide -- if marijuana advocates have their way.

Christen said Maine's current medical marijuana law pushes patients to become criminals.

He said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and should never have been made illegal in the first place.

Prohibition has only served to criminalize users who are otherwise law-abiding people, said Christen. If marijuana were legal, he said, it could provide tax revenues for the state and a source of income for growers.

Whatever the rationale, there is evidence that allowing medical use of marijuana, or simply making it legal, is gaining popularity.

Polls taken by the Gallup organization have shown support for legalizing marijuana has increased from 12 percent in 1969 to 36 percent in 2005, according to an article by that organization.

A 2004 AARP poll of people 45 and older found that 72 percent believe patients should be able to use marijuana if a physician recommends it.

Despite its improving image, however, state officials, including Gov. John Baldacci and State Health Officer Dr. Dora Anne Mills, say expanding the state's medical marijuana law is not a good idea.

Mills said that while she has not seen the specific petitions, she has testified against past proposals to expand the use of medical marijuana.

SOME BENEFITS

There is some evidence that marijuana can provide potential benefits for certain narrowly defined conditions -- including nausea and wasting -- but the case for using marijuana to treat even those conditions has weakened as alternative medicines have become available, she said.

"My impression is there is less of a medical need now than there was 20 years ago," said Mills.

As a drug, marijuana is poorly understood, she said.

More research is needed to understand the active ingredients in the plant and to determine the safest delivery system for those ingredients, Mills said.

Smoking marijuana is also problematic because of the toxins in marijuana smoke and because a doctor cannot control the precise dose that a patient uses, said Mills.

Then there are the known risks, including impaired judgment and memory loss from long-term use.

"I do feel that the federal government needs to do more research, but in the meantime, I do not think we should be promoting medical marijuana," she said.

Dan Cashman, a spokesman for Baldacci, said the governor has not seen the petitions, but in general opposes legalizing marijuana.

While Baldacci respects the right of Maine people to pass a medical-marijuana law, the statute puts the state in conflict with federal laws and the governor believes it should not be expanded, said Cashman

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said he remains convinced that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that can lead young people in the wrong direction even though users don't face the risk of death in case of an overdose.

"As a society we have already made the mistake of legitimizing alcohol and tobacco use," which kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, said Liberty.

Maine has decriminalized possession of 1.25 ounces of the drug, and Liberty said he has no reason to believe the state's medical-marijuana law is not adequate for the needs of patients.

Drug dealers also try to hide behind the law, claiming that large quantities are meant for medicinal use, he said.

Kennebec and Somerset County District Attorney Evert N. Fowle calls the existing law "a mess," but said that is where his agreement with Christen ends.

As it is written, the law allows people whose ultimate goal is to legalize marijuana to use the law as a shield, said Fowle.

It can be difficult for police to determine if someone who is growing marijuana qualifies under the law and if they are in compliance.

STRICT CONTROLS

Rather than expand the law, however, the prosecutor said the state should "go back to the drawing board" and decide whether a law is needed at all. If one is, the state can construct a measure with very strict controls.

Jonathan Leavitt, coordinator for Maine Citizens for Patients' Rights, believes the way to help police determine who qualifies for medical marijuana is to use an identification-card system.

Leavitt said Maine's existing medical-marijuana law is unworkable because while it allows patients to grow a maximum of six plants -- three of which can be flowering -- and to possess some marijuana, it does not provide a legal means for patients to acquire seeds or marijuana.

"There is no mechanism in the law for patients to access their medicine," he said.

Many patients are not in a position to grow their own or don't have the skills or space.

"How are they going to access it without breaking the law?" he asked.

Leavitt said his organization's petition calls for non-profit dispensaries to provide marijuana to patients. Those dispensaries would be licensed by the state. Patients would have ID cards that they could show to law enforcement officers to prove they qualify under Maine's law.

There is a growing body of research that shows that marijuana is effective in many ways and he said that for patients with several conditions, having access to it is a lifestyle issue.

"This is real for people who are dealing with chemotherapy, who are HIV positive," said Leavitt. "A lot of times they can't hold food down if they don't have THC (an active ingredient in marijuana) in their system."

The prohibition of marijuana use has been a expensive failure, said Leavitt. In the long term, he said his organization is not content with just streamlining Maine's medical marijuana law.

"Our end goal is to create enough space so that the whole policy can be re-examined," Leavitt said.

Source: Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
Copyright: 2008, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
Contact: Alan Crowell, acrowell@centralmaine.com
Website: Groups advocate for expanded marijuana usage
 
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