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Just What The Doctor Ordered


Ohio Law Remains Far Behind the Scientific and Anecdotal Evidence of Marijuana's Health-Related Uses

The year's harvest was almost gathered throughout the farms and foothills of rural Columbiana County, a short drive from Canton, when the sun rose on Sunday, October 3, 2004 and immediately set on Randy Brush. This was the morning Randy's slowly deteriorating health would become the least of his worries.

Curt knocks on the door. Wellsville police. You've got pot on your roof, Randy. And indeed he did. His heart fell. He told his wife to stay with their three kids inside, that he'd take care of it. He provided the ladder and showed officers how best to reach the top of his three-story home to witness his secluded homegrown pharmacy for themselves, four plants, 8-feet-tall with stalks as thick as a wrist.

His wife stifled the urge to scream. It wasn't long after the bust that she filed for divorce and custody.

Randy made it clear to the officers: He was smoking cannabis for the pain of legitimate medical conditions and to ease the effects of the 6,000 prescribed pills he takes each year. The officers told him that as far as they knew that was still illegal in Ohio.

"I didn't feel like I was hurting anybody," he recalls during a recent interview at Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient. "I was simply using this because I was sick."

Even in a town with 4,133 citizens, it still felt a little odd when Randy realized that he knew a few of the cops who were uprooting the plants and dragging them away. He insists a few of them made a show of mercy that morning, bequeathing about a quarter-pound of buds that had fallen as the plants were hauled to the street.

"They were dragged all over the ground, and I was picking it up for them and they were like, "Just keep that for later,'" he recalls.

Wellsville Police Chief Joe Scarabino, who attended high school with Randy, says, "That and 50 cents gets you about a cup of coffee. If we're conducting a search of a residence and turn up marijuana, and we're going to take the case to the grand jury, why would we leave any behind?"

"He wasn't there," Randy says flatly. "He doesn't know."

If Randy were living in, say, the state where he was born, Massachusetts, or any of the other 11 mostly blue states that today allow for prescribed cannabis, October 3, 2004 likely would have turned out like any other for Randy Brush. Even in left-leaning Greater Cleveland, he might have settled for $100 in fines like Lakewood residents and medical cannabis activists Joe and Deirdre Zoretic, who late last year resolved their second offense since 2001 with stunned looks of relief on their faces and not even probation to whine about.

But in Columbiana County, Republican Judge C. Ashley Pike has a different view. He told Randy that he was the lowest form of life before sentencing him in March 2006 to three years in prison and $7,500 in fines.

Few know that Ohio was the first state to legalize possession of marijuana to those with a doctor's permission. It wasn't for long.

Quietly buried in the 1,000-plus-page 1996 Senate bill overhauling sentencing guidelines was a provision adjusting the marijuana code to allow for the exception. Top Gun Betty Montgomery gave the thumbs-up. The General Assembly, too. Then-Governor George Voinovich signed it into law.

"Several months later, they came out and said they didn't even know it was in there," jabs Dennis Day, a veteran Columbus attorney handling Randy Brush's appeal. "It's scary to think that the governor was signing bills and didn't know what they contained. But they went public to have it taken out and the Republican-controlled legislature jumped on it."

Several calls seeking now-Senator Voinovich's opinion of medical cannabis went unreturned.

"It's the nature of politics," Day laments. "Nobody wants to be labeled soft on drugs; however the fact that Ohio doesn't have medical marijuana legislation means our legislature, without meaning to be, are being hardest on people with diseases and disabilities that could benefit from it."

Then Voinovich begat Bob and Hope Taft, two vociferous drug warriors. Backed by a conservative legislature, law enforcement and the prison lobby, the couple fought against the passage of Issue 1, which would have sentenced a lot of nonviolent drug offenders to treatment in lieu of prison. The first couple also campaigned heartily against the wave of bills to come.

In 2003, state Rep. Ken Carano floated a medicinal marijuana bill spearheaded by the Ohio Patient Network, a nonprofit formed to push for medical cannabis. But that died a quiet death, tabled in committee, as did two others forwarded in 2003 and 2005 by then-Senator Robert F. Hagan ( D-Youngstown ), another lone sponsor.

"In all fairness, every Democratic bill gets tabled or languishes," Hagan jokes today. But this is no laughing matter to Hagan.

About seven years ago, Hagan became quite familiar with the 60-mile stretch between Youngstown and Madison, where his father, longtime politico Robert E., was dying of cancer. In his final six months, morphine left his father quite often incoherent and unavailable.

"Had it been legal I certainly would have gotten him some marijuana," Hagan recalls. "And now I'm watching my mother suffer with lung cancer. She was diagnosed a few months back. When she was getting her radiation treatments, she said, "You know, Bobby, this is not going to extend my life.' I said, "Mom, my concern is with alleviating your pain. We don't want you to suffer.' I told her, "Believe me, if it gets to the point where you need some, mom, I'll find some for you.'"

Hagan has begun to tune out the snide comments lobbed from across the aisle. Like the time Hagan was late for a meeting and State Senator Robert Spada, of North Royalton, asked him if he'd been smoking a joint in the bathroom.

"I'm a product of the '60s," Hagan says. "And if they want to reduce this to that, that's fine, but it shows a lack of inquisitive judgment on their part and I'm afraid they haven't seen someone in the real throes of pain in the latter stages of their lives. They just feel that what's available should be OK."

Now in the State House, Hagan plans to introduce a new bill within a month. He figures the climate has changed, with a decade's worth of medical protocol formed in a dozen other states as backup.

"There's a lot more support out there for it and I think if we can articulate it in a way that doesn't make it look like we're all burned-out hippies and more concerned with the latter medical stages in our lives, we can get it passed."

His brother, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, sides with the family. In a debate against Bob Taft in the gubernatorial race of 2002, Hagan, who claims he never had the confidence to break the law and try marijuana himself, told a Dayton audience that if he could ease his father's suffering he'd ask his young nephews to find a way to get grandpa what he needed.

"It's hypocrisy," he says. "Alcohol is much more damaging than marijuana. No question. My view is, if we can provide something to give comfort to people who are terminal and ease their pain, I'm for it."

The visiting area at Pickaway Correctional looks and smells like an old school cafeteria. Tiny clusters of plastic chairs and knee-high white tables turn it into a grid that accentuates the orderly nature of the place. Tucked into the far wall is a small children's play room. Outside, the view of a small picnic area is overwhelmed by shiny fencing and razorblades and country sky.

Randy Brush shuffles in a little stooped but smiling. He keeps what's left of his hair cropped close, looking nearly bald. He's quick to smile, but speaks in quiet, measured tones.

"My story I think is kind of boring and simple," the 47-year-old says, seated next to the assistant warden, who is pretending not to listen. "But some people might like it."

In 1990, just before his kids were born, Randy stopped boozing and hasn't had a drop since. He forged ahead sober with wife Brenda and three kids ( now 14, 13 and 11 ) -- all students in accelerated learning programs with IQs hovering around 140. He worked for several area contractors as their personal custom woodworker over the next decade.

But in 2000, a series of work-related injuries -- surgery to remove a cyst on his wrist, carpal tunnel, a back injury on another job -- started taking a toll. In spring 2001, he was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Doctors put a stent into his heart. His list of meds got longer.

Just months later, Randy's doctors also declared him to be osteoarthritic and 100-percent disabled. He couldn't work, and was taking as many as 20 different medications a day. He spent a lot of time on the couch, aching, nauseous and depressed.

In early 2002, a visiting cousin recommended a joint.

"I said, "Well, I did that in the '70s, when I was in high school, but I'm a little too old to be playing around with drugs anymore. I told him I didn't think that would work."

But a seed was planted. And when he got his hands on some later, he tried it. He claims his blood pressure lowered, the pain receded. "I hadn't done dishes or vacuumed my house for probably a year or two," he recalls. "It got me up off the couch that very same day that I tried it. And it wasn't like I sat there like Cheech and Chong using drugs all day. It was a few puffs and I was able to be a father again."

His first attempts to grow his own failed. So when the government finally agreed with his doctor's disability diagnosis in late 2003, he paid off bills, bought a car for his wife and a computer for the kids, then invested in books on cultivation and equipment. He started nurturing his four behemoths in the spring of 2004. Combined they weighed in at just over 1,000 grams -- the threshold for his charges to become third-degree felonies.

"If I'd have known the law then, I'd have grown three instead of four," he says, shooting a little grin at the warden, who stares blankly back.

Scientific discovery appears to be catching up to the political rhetoric that's long defined this debate. It's something Dr. Philip Denney has been hoping for ever since he started practicing family medicine three decades ago in Redding, California, where for the past seven he's been prescribing marijuana to patients for a variety of reasons: to stimulate appetite and ease nausea in cancer or AIDS patients; to quell chronic pain ( about half of his patients ); to lessen the effects of glaucoma; to soften the symptoms of Tourette's, multiple sclerosis, or neural disorders like phantom limb syndrome.

And its use as a reduction substitute in addiction treatment "may turn out to be one of the very most useful aspects of cannabis," Denney says. "It's amazing to me, every day in practice, we see people, lifelong conservatives, Republicans who wouldn't say marijuana if they had a mouthful. Now they're in intractable pain and their grandson begged them to try it and there they are in my office the next day and they're angry that their doctor hadn't been allowed to tell them about this stuff a long time ago."

The most modern studies on the medical benefits of cannabis seem to point to many more pros than cons. And the lines are slowly getting longer at pro-pot doctors and co-ops in the states where buying or growing cannabis is legal for those with a prescription. Los Angeles' police chief recently called for a moratorium on construction of new co-ops after nearly 100 sprung up in that city over the last year.

Government statistics, Denney says, show that about 10 percent of adults admit to using marijuana, so he conservatively estimates that 2.4 million pounds are smoked in California each year. At about $250 an ounce, that makes marijuana a $10 billion business in California alone each year. And the estimated 500,000 patients now prescribed the drug in that state comprise a powerful voting bloc that the federal government still insists is part of the enemy in its ongoing war on drugs.

Denney just sued the Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms after learning that two undercover investigators posed as patients to receive prescriptions at his clinic. Several cultivators in California, many with prescriptions or licenses to sell to those with prescriptions, have nevertheless been jailed in the past several years by federal authorities.

"You have to be very upset by the fact that this shows democracy here for what it really is: It's not government of, by and for the people; it's government of, by and for the police," Denney says. "And when I think of what's behind this, I think of an old joke: Why don't Baptists believe in having sex while standing up? They're afraid it might lead to dancing. There's many underpinnings to that."

He adds, "The government is opposed based on fundamentalism. It's Calvinism run amok. The point of view is that humans are here to suffer to atone for original sin and to achieve salvation. So anything that causes us to feel good and feel pleasure is all of a sudden bad."

But that didn't stop the government from including marijuana in its Investigational New Drug Program nearly three decades ago. In that study, at least 40 subjects were supplied with 300 cigarette-sized joints per month, made with marijuana grown on the government's own farm at the University of Mississippi. The program's seven living members still receive their monthly goodies.

"This whole thing is characterized by an absolute hypocrisy," Denney says. "They know the truth of this. There's a mounting body of scientific evidence, and yet the government still refuses to believe that cannabis has any scientific medical benefits."

But why not just take Marinol? The prescription is a derivative of cannibis, a synthetic THC, which is the chief ingredient of marijuana. Denney says there are several reasons: A patient may be nauseous and unable to swallow pills; Marinol isn't always effective and often will lead to an overly drugged feeling; it lacks the full compliment of the plant's 64 or so other cannabinoids that are suspected of working in concert to achieve the optimum benefits. And it costs about $1,200 a month.

Perhaps the best news that's come to folks like Denney in a while is a study recently completed by UCLA scientist Donald Tashkin concluding that smoking cannabis doesn't contribute to lung cancer and, in fact, may even have a preventative effect.

"The group with the lowest incidence of cancer were those who smoked cannabis only, even lower than those who smoked nothing at all," Denney noted.

Bill Zimmerman, executive director for the Campaign for New Drug Policies, a California-based organizing body credited with financing most successful medical cannabis initiative drives over the past decade, says money continues to be directed toward pushing for changes in every state. Author/liberal financier George Soros, John Sperling and former Progressive CEO Peter B. Lewis provided most of the money behind the group's first big push from 1996 to 2002.

Zimmerman believes states like Ohio are nearing the front of the line.

"At this point medical marijuana should be something voters would approve of there," he says. "The trick is getting together the money it takes to qualify. It's hundreds of thousands of dollars because you need that amount of signatures in a relatively short time."

Marijuana activists picketed outside the courthouse when Randy Brush went on trial. He'd wanted to present a medical defense, but his attorney informed him that there was no such thing in Ohio.

When he got a chance to address the jury, he recalls, "I just simply looked at every juror right in the eye and I told them that they're the law, they're the ones who can change the law right here and now. They don't have to find me guilty and send me to prison."

They weren't persuaded. After four hours of deliberation, they found him guilty. In his decision, Judge Pike stated that "the defendant has shown no remorse and was openly defiant; has shown no medical documents indicating the need for any form of medical treatment; that this defendant has no regard for the laws of this state; that recidivism is more likely; and that this offender needs to be punished and the public protected from future crimes from this offender."

To this day Randy believes his wife Brenda tipped off police. Brenda, who still lives in the family home, vehemently denies this, calling her ex-husband's actions "a cop-out."

"If I did know," Brenda says, "you better believe I'd have gotten the kids out of there right then and called police and told them, "There's marijuana on my roof!' Everybody has medical problems, OK? And these people blame it on medical problems so they can go and try to use this damn marijuana legally. Randy has a lot to amend with his children. Their dad's gone. They hurt.

"Randy used be very warm, a very loving and kind man until he got tied up in this crap, and then everything went to hell."

Joe and Deirdre Zoretic attended Randy's trial and remember traveling home after the sentencing, back up I-71 to the melting pot of Lakewood, in wild-eyed amazement.

"After seeing what happened to Randy, we realized how lucky we were," says Joe in the living room of the couple's new duplex apartment last week. "When he got sentenced, it was shock, the whole way home, just staring. You can see marijuana is not as big a deal around here. But go down into Columbiana County and it's a little different."

When the couple's son, Stephen, was in kindergarten in 1999, Deirdre injured her arm in a fall as a waitress at the Olive Garden, developing reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a chronic neurological syndrome marked by extreme swelling along her right side. The prescribed meds weren't working. They researched cultivation, decided to give grass a shot.

"But the symbol of our lives should be the eight ball," deadpans Deirdre, who's now the director of patient advocacy for the 1,000-member Ohio Patient Network.

In 2000, the couple was working when a fire broke out next door. When firefighters forced their way into the couple's enclosed back porch to warn inhabitants, they found about three dozen plants, most just tiny seedlings. Ultimately the Zoretics paid fines totaling just $300.

As soon as their attorney had the charges expunged, they started growing again. Everything was going fine, too, with Deirdre's symptoms continuing to recede. Then, on February 21, 2005, police records show that Deirdre called a social service agency asking for help with an emotional problem. The agency dispatched police to their home and officers found an exterior door open. They entered. Then they smelled marijuana.

In the dining area, the couple spoke to one investigator as another spotted two marijuana pipes in a glass cabinet; he asked if there was more. The couple cooperated, opening a bureau drawer and handing over a few containers of buds. Police found more, though. After a search warrant was granted, 38 mostly small plants were found, with nine larger ones in a light box, as well as two scales.

This time Joe Zoretic spent five days in jail before Deirdre could help raise his $20,000 bail in the activist community. But the end result this time was a godsend again. This time the couple was fined a total of $100 with no probation.

They are proudly unrepentant, but fear, now that they've moved to another house just across town, that police will start poking around.

"It's a biological instinct for every animal, every plant to preserve themselves," Deirdre says. "Even a plant, when there's no water, will grow deeper in the soil. I was preserving my own life."

As soon as the last case was resolved, Deirdre told her doctor what had happened. He prescribed her Marinol on the spot, she says, which "is a substitute but a poor substitute. It's the difference between powdered milk and the real thing."

Now, both of Deirdre's parents are suffering from cancer, but won't even consider marijuana as an option.

"I've been begging my mom," says Deirdre, shifting on a cane and adjusting the brace on her wrist. ""Please try it because I know it'd help.' But she said, "I can't do what you've done.' They're afraid. I just feel like, in the war on drugs, please let us take our sick, suffering and wounded off the battlefield."

Talking of her parents makes her break into tears, her eyes squinting below short, girlish bangs. "I've been helped so much by all this and I feel like I have to give back. It's like being given an A-plus before you've earned it."

In November '05, Deirdre was named High Times magazine's "Freedom Fighter of the Month."

Prison hasn't been easy for Randy Brush, he just won't have to be there as long as he originally thought.

Just a few months into his sentence, after being accepted into the program at North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, a prison facility for the addicted in Lorain, he began suffering intense pains in his stomach. He fired off a series of inter-prison memos. But days passed until finally he was told that he'd have to wait for doctor's sick call -- in four weeks.

He started talking suicide then. A staffer finally took notice and lined up an appointment with a doctor, who found a ruptured appendix.

After Randy healed he ended up at Pickaway, where in October he was admitted into a program that allows nonviolent offenders to finish their sentences in 120 days, followed by another 90 at a halfway house. Randy will be heading to a house in Cleveland on February 7, but not before going public with his distaste for the laws that put him through all this. He's actively involved now with state lobbyists. He writes letter after letter to legislators. And his appeal attorney holds out hopes that the case will be overturned.

"I'm concerned for his well-being," says Jim Cowen, vice president for North Ohio NORML, who's visited Randy at least once a month since he was incarcerated. "Randy has been very outspoken at all the institutions he's been at. I'm sure they want to get rid of him as much as he wants to get out."

Randy says, "I still don't believe they're going to let me go. I figure they're going to find one way or another to keep me here."

His plans are simple but conflicting now: reestablish a relationship with his kids and stay sober long enough to get off probation. But, if Ohio remains hostile to medical cannabis laws, Randy just might head somewhere his kind can be loved again.

"Even if I move to Canada or something like that, I'll always call Ohio my home," he says, before inching his way back to an 8-by-10-foot cell. "I'm probably not going to live a whole lot longer. That's why I'm going to fight as hard as I can. I don't back down."

Source: Cleveland Free Times (OH)
Page: Cover Article
Copyright: 2007 Cleveland Free Times Media
Contact: letters@freetimes.com
Website: default.secureserver.net

The Don Won

Plant of the Month: June 2008
wow .... i live in ohio and smoke. hope ohio does go medical would help alot of people out including me.
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