Controversy over medicinal marijuana has reached the eighth grade in
Belmont, where a middle school principal has refused to let a student
display her project on the possible medical benefits of pot.

Ralston Intermediate School Principal Deborah Ferguson told
13-year-old Veronica Mouser last week she was barring her project --
called ``Mary Jane for Pain'' -- from the school science fair opening

Projects are supposed to be hands-on, the school says, and marijuana
is still considered an illegal drug by the federal government.

Veronica burst into sobs and called her stepfather from the nearest
phone. Now the emboldened teen, who loves debating and wants to be a
lawyer, is ready to put up a battle.

``It's just not fair,'' Veronica said. ``I put in months of work. This
is a controversial subject and it should be discussed.''

The American Civil Liberties Union has already called, and the
county's science fair coordinator says he plans to rewrite the rules
to make it clear projects involving drugs are out.

Veronica's stepfather, Dave Phillips, a systems administrator at
Oracle, filed a complaint with the school district to compel the
school to display her work. A decision by district officials is
expected today.

Veronica didn't smoke marijuana herself or give it to her research
subjects. Instead, she studied the effects the weed had on three
medicinal marijuana patients, visited an Oakland cannabis club, toured
a private pot-growing room in Redwood Shores and interviewed doctors.
She didn't attach any samples on her cardboard display, and her
parents supervised her at every step.

She concluded that medicinal marijuana helped relieve pain and nausea
in chronically ill patients.

Ferguson was not available for comment Monday. But Marcia Harter,
assistant superintendent of the Belmont-Redwood Shores School
District, said science fair projects are supposed to include hands-on
experiments, and it could be inappropriate to let a student conduct
research of marijuana; it is still considered an illegal drug by the
federal government even though Californians have sanctioned it for
medical use.

``Science fairs do not allow the use of controlled substances, and
also they have been careful not to let students experiment with
substances that are illegal or controlled,'' Harter said.

Veronica did get the approval of her science teacher Mark Jorgensen in
December to do the project, Harter said. Jorgensen did not return
calls seeking comment.

The dispute illustrates the wider conflict over use of medicinal
marijuana since state voters approved its use while federal law bans

Cannabis buyer clubs have sprung up to fill prescriptions even as the
federal government has swept in to shut them down. And in San Mateo
County, work is under way on a federally sanctioned study of the
possible benefits and detriments of using medicinal pot.

Veronica also conducted a survey of about 100 students and relatives
on whether it's easier for teens to buy marijuana or alcohol.
Seventy-two percent said pot is more accessible.

Veronica and her stepfather decided the project also should include a
form from the principal approving the work to make it clear that
Veronica was supervised and authorized.

That was how Ferguson learned of the project. The principal consulted
the county's science fair coordinator, Gary Nakagiri, about whether
the exhibit would meet guidelines set by the county, regional and
state science fairs.

While the rules wouldn't ban her project, Nakagiri said the work would
be viewed unfavorably because it amounts to a research paper not a
scientific process. A hands-on experiment could bend a rule against
using ``dangerous'' substances, though that rule was originally aimed
at explosives and harmful chemicals.

``Marijuana is still borderline,'' Nakagiri said. ``It's still an
emotional issue for many folks. Nowadays, with education being on the
firing line already, when something like this comes up, our
inclination is to be careful.''

But Veronica said pursuit of scientific inquiry shouldn't be
restrained because of controversy. ``I think they just didn't like
what I had to say, or talking about it, so they block it out, and
that's not science,'' she said.

She also contends her project did have scientific merit; three
patients logged what happened after using marijuana for one week and
stopping use the next week. Veronica said she abhors recreational use
of drugs, and warns in her project about the dangers of the smoke.

Either way, she's making change. Nakagiri said the county science fair
will sharpen its guidelines to block handling of illegal substances.

``I guess I've learned not only about medical pot, but how people
will try to control what you say,'' Veronica said. ``Now I'm even
more determined to say what I have to say.''

Pubdate: Tue, 28 Jan 2003
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2003 San Jose Mercury News