Ill Should Not Have To Fear A Drug Bust


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Witnesses headed into Tuesday's state Senate medical marijuana hearing have a prescription for lawmakers: Help us relieve pain. Help us deal with illness in privacy.

And those set to testify before the Senate health committee are citizens one least expects to be turning on and tuning in. A major reason for using cannabis is that they don't WANT to drop out.

Katy Rourke, who worked for 27 years in the psychiatric ward at Harborview Medical Center, suffers from bone degenerative diseases. She takes a drug advertised in TV spots where happy people romp on the screen while the announcer reels off possible side effects.

"I just need to function," Rourke said. The "medications I take for muscle relaxation leave me unable to think. With marijuana, while I can't drive of course, I am functional."

Bambi Hope, a longtime military police officer, cares for an 18-year-old son who suffers from crippling muscular dystrophy and chronic severe pain.

"We tried every synthetic medication," Hope said. "Our doctor recommended that he try marijuana and it made a world of difference. ... I am military -- I was an MP -- and I never thought that I would let marijuana into my home, let alone putting it down my son's throat."

Cannabis may relieve physical pain, but having and growing it remains a source of legal anxiety for patients and caregivers.

Washington voters in 1998 passed Initiative 692 with a 59 percent majority. It allows for medical use of marijuana by patients with certain terminal or debilitating conditions. The law is an "affirmative defense" in court if patients are prosecuted.

With Initiative 75, Seattle voters took a step further in 2003, mandating that arrests of marijuana-using adults would become the lowest priority for city police.

Alas, no state or local initiative can change federal law, or the attitude problem of the Bush administration.

Federal law makes cannabis possession, distribution and manufacture illegal -- period.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator John Walters campaigned in Seattle against I-75. He crossed the border to warn Vancouver, B.C., of possible ruptures in relations as the Canadian city pondered adoption of a treatment-based drug policy.

The feds claim that "no animal or human data" supports the efficacy of marijuana use in treatment.

They should go talk to Ric Smith, who has recovered from a serious stroke and survived colon cancer.

How did marijuana help?

"I could eat," he said. "It was a key to recovery. I could eat and hold down my medications. Pharmaceutical drugs kept me alive. No way I could keep down all those pills without eating."

Rourke was stopped while driving, and officers found her medical marijuana. After producing papers showing that she was an authorized patient, Rourke was let off.

Subsequently, claiming to be acting on a tip, police found plants in her home. Rourke now faces charges for cultivating cannabis in Snohomish County.

"It's very emotional," she said Friday. "I just spent my morning in court. I'm 63 years old. I've worked my whole life. I have three wonderful children. I've never been in trouble with the law.

"What is gained by wasting money and everybody's time on a matter that is my business?"

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, asks the same question.

"I've seen very sick people get arrested and have very serious problems," she said. "And, dealing with this, law enforcement people get put in a quandary."

The bottom line: Change is needed at the federal level. Congress is, of course, afraid of being seen as being "soft" on drugs.

Given political realities, however, Kohl-Welles has come up with a modest, sensible proposal to relieve anxiety. It would protect marijuana patients from being arrested or prosecuted under state law.

Senate Bill 6032 would broaden what physicians can do, saying they can recommend medical marijuana if it "may benefit" a patient. The definition of who can supply marijuana would be changed from "primary caregiver" to "designated provider."

Kohl-Welles would permit patients or caregivers to pool resources in growing marijuana ("We could have a P-patch"). She would ensure that patients who are able to produce authorizing paperwork would not be arrested. She would add conditions, including Hepatitis C, where marijuana can be prescribed.

Kohl-Welles cites as an example her 31-year-old sister-in-law, who slowly died from cancer.

"Her very conservative parents were out getting her medical marijuana," she said. "Should someone like this be arrested?"

The fate of SB 6032 and two House bills introduced by Rep. Sherry Appleton is uncertain.

Our cautious state House of Representatives hasn't mustered the gumption to pass bills aimed at cell phone users who drive recklessly. It has failed to make global warming a top priority.

If scared about their political lives, legislators ought to consider the real lives of people such as Rourke, Hope and Smith.

They should also turn to Question 32 in a statewide poll of 1,200 registered voters taken last year by Belden Russonello & Stewart for the American Civil Liberties Union: "Washington state -- not the federal government -- should be able to make its own laws regarding medical marijuana, that is marijuana recommended by doctors to relieve pain and suffering."

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed strongly agreed. Fifteen percent somewhat agreed. Only 15 percent disagreed.

Author: Joel Connelly
Copyright: 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Website: Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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