When he wants to sleep, Leonard Ellis of New Vineyard smokes marijuana to
ease the pain of his muscular dystrophy. Charles Wynott of Portland puffs
on a joint to relieve the nausea caused by his AIDS medications. And
Carroll Cummings of Vassalboro uses pot to manage the agony of spinal disease.

Maine's medical marijuana law, endorsed by an overwhelming majority of
voters in a 1999 referendum, was supposed to shield people like these from
state prosecution for using an illegal drug. Yet all three men face
possible fines or jail time for marijuana possession or cultivation charges.

Elizabeth Beane, director of Mainers for Medical Rights, says the federal
government is an impediment to the state's medical marijuana law being
properly implemented.

Their plights shed light on the unresolved conflicts and challenges
embedded in the controversial law.

Sick people say the measure imposes unrealistic conditions on their
possession and cultivation of the drug. Doctors are reluctant to recommend
it to their patients because of legal or medical concerns. And those who
campaigned for the law say federal prohibitions against marijuana continue
to hobble its medicinal use.

"If the federal government would get out of the way and let the doctors
work on the issue with patients, then it could be made available in truly
legal ways," said Elizabeth Beane, director of Mainers for Medical Rights.

Maine voters passed the medical marijuana law by a solid 61-39 percent
margin, making this the ninth state that has legalized medicinal use of the
drug.

Under the law, a person is exempt from state prosecution if he or she is
using pot for symptoms associated with cancer therapy, AIDS, glaucoma,
epilepsy and diseases that cause severe muscle spasms.

The condition must be diagnosed by a doctor who provides continuous care to
the patient and recommends the use of marijuana in writing. Also, a patient
may possess no more than 1.25 ounces of processed marijuana and six live
plants.

No one knows how many residents have obtained doctors' recommendations and
supplies of marijuana since the law passed. There is no patient
registration requirement.

Beane, a licensed clinical social worker from Gorham, says she knows of
several AIDS patients who obtained the approval of their doctors and
regularly use marijuana. She says the law is working well for people who
have a supportive physician and a trusted marijuana supplier.

"But for people who have these fringe issues, it's not working so well,"
she said.

Among those on the fringe are the three men who are facing possible drug
prosecution.

Wynott, the Portland man with AIDS, has a note recommending marijuana use
that was written by a doctor in Florida, where he lived until April. But
the note is not valid under Maine law.

Wynott says he hasn't been able to find a doctor here who is willing to act
as his primary care physician.

"I do know doctors that have written notes (recommending medical marijuana
for their patients)," he said. "There's a handful of them, but they aren't
accepting new patients."

During the referendum campaign, the Maine Medical Association opposed the
law. It has since issued an advisory, offering to support doctors who
believe their patients could benefit from marijuana. But the advisory also
notes that doctors are not obligated to write notes.

Ellis, 62, a muscular dystrophy patient, and Cummings, 53, who has
torticollis, a rare condition that causes spinal deterioration, were able
to get recommendations from their doctors.

They were arrested because they had more marijuana at their homes than the
law allows.

Cummings' lawyer, Patricia Danisika-Washburn of Skowhegan, admits that her
client had 29 plants and three-quarters of a pound of marijuana in his
possession. She says he has to grow that much marijuana in the summer to
get him through the winter because growing inside is expensive and difficult.

David Sanders, a lawyer who represents Ellis, says many people who qualify
under the law are too disabled to cultivate the plants and can't afford the
equipment needed indoors.

And it's neither legal nor realistic, Sanders says, to expect an older
person in poor health to go to a street corner or back alley and buy
black-market marijuana from a dealer.

"The problem with the statute is, it's unworkable," he said. "They expect
you to walk this tightrope of continuous and year-round cultivation."

Dr. Owen Pickus, a Portland physician who specializes in the treatment of
infectious diseases, says he has been able to treat his AIDS patients
effectively without recommending marijuana.

Pickus says he would write a note supporting marijuana use if the medical
circumstances dictated it, and he knows other doctors who have done so. But
Pickus notes that doctors who recommend marijuana could be in danger of
losing their federal licenses to prescribe scheduled drugs.

Another physician who treats AIDS patients, Dr. Robert Smith of Portland,
says many doctors are uncomfortable recommending marijuana because they
can't be sure of its purity or the risks of its interaction with other
medication.

Observers agree that the major barrier to progress is the federal
government's failure to reclassify marijuana. The federal Drug Enforcement
Administration continues to list it as a "schedule one" drug, meaning it
has no therapuetic value.

Pickus says there is ample scientific evidence that marijuana works to
alleviate certain symptoms. Some components of pot's active ingredient, he
adds, have been marketed legally in pill form.

"There is a real need for federal legislation," he said. "There is no
reason for this to be a sacred cow."

Supporters of the law are keeping the pressure on by introducing another
bill to create a state-sanctioned distribution system for marijuana. The
Legislature will hold hearings on the proposal this winter.

However, one law enforcement official, Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion,
says the state could be doing a better job of providing more immediate help
to patients who use marijuana.

Dion supports the idea of a small, nonprofit marijuana growing operation,
together with a registry for patients who qualify and have consulted with
their doctors on medical use of marijuana.

He says such a system would allow police to use discretion if they find
someone growing too many pot plants.

"That would provide some immediate relief, and I think that's what voters
wanted when they passed this law," Dion said.

Meanwhile, patients like the three Maine men who were arrested will soon be
dealing with the courts.

Wynott has been given 45 days to find a doctor before a Ninth District
Court judge in Portland acts on his marijuana possession charge.

Cummings, through his lawyer, will file a motion soon in Seventh District
Court in Waterville to suppress the evidence seized at his home.

And Ellis goes to trial today in Franklin County Superior Court on charges
of marijuana cultivation. If convicted, he could go to jail for a year.


Newshawk: http://www.cannabisnews.com/
Pubdate: Mon, 12 Feb 2001
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Contact: letters@pressherald.com
Address: 50 Monument Square, Suite 302, Portland, ME 04101
Fax: (207) 879-1042
Website: http://www.portland.com/
Forum: http://www.portland.com/cgi-in/COMMUNITY/netforum/community/a/1
Author: Dieter Bradbury