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High hopes for medicinal marijuana

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Although a bill to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in Iowa will apparently stall out in the state legislature this year, supporters are already gearing up for 2010.

Barbara Douglass of Storm Lake says she is a living example that the drug has medicinal value. A multiple sclerosis survivor, she and others like her have been patiently fighting for approval of medicial marijuana use for two decades.

"At least this time they are hearing us," she said of the 2009 bill proposed by Senator Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat. "We've been saying the same thing for 20 years now, but it is getting more and more acceptable."

Douglass is one of only eight Americans provided with legal marijuana cigarettes through a U.S. Food and Drug Administration program for "compassionate" relief, when a lawsuit opened a brief window of opportunity years ago. She was diagnoses with MS in 1988 and first given a prescription for Marinol, a pill form, but although it has worked for others she's known, it was too strong for her, rendering her unable to think and act clearly.

The marijuana has made her illness liveable, she says, and she still has hopes that it will be approved to ease the pain of others in similar circumstances.

"I would hope that people come to realize that, yes, it is a drug - by hey, it helps," she said. "If it doesn't happen this year, it will still have to happen. States are getting smarter and smarter. These things take time. When Iowa does accept it, the state will quickly realize that it has done a good thing. They can even tax it."

This year's bill includes a new twist, calling for new not-for-profit facilities called "compassion centers" to cultivate and deliver marijuana to qualifying patients. To legally access marijuana, patients would need to be diagnosed with a debilitating disease by their doctor, such as cancer, MS, Lou Gehrig's disease, Crohn's disease, hepatitis C, Alzheimer's, glaucoma, AIDS and human immunodeficiency virus. Penalties would be established for those who wrongly obtain the drug. Patients would be issued special identification cards in hopes of preventing misuse of the drug.

Even the Democrats who supported the bill admit that it is likely to go no further this session, which is dominated by budget worries.

A number of Iowans testified at a series of public hearings held on the issue, including Paul Peterson of Storm Lake, a longtime proponent of legalized marijuana use. According to a Des Moines Register report, he spoke on behalf of his mother, Ann Peterson Pyle, who he has provided with marijuana tea to offset symptoms of Alzheimer's.

He said that improvements in her condition were evident within 20 minutes, and that she is able to continue leading an active life well into her 90s.

Several states are studying legislation similar to that proposed in Iowa. Iowa would have become the 14th state to approve medicinal marijuana for debilitating diseases, if the legislature had approved.

While studies such as a much-cited 1999 Institute of Medicine report have suggested potential therapeutic value of marijuana for pain relief, control of nausea and appetite stimulation, others have strongly opposed the bill.

A group calling itself Save Our Society has lobbied the legislature to drop the bill, saying that "the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve of the use of smoked marijuana for so-called medical purposes, and its use is, therefore, unregulated. There are literally dozens of FDA-approved medications that can effectively deal with the symptoms associated with the different medical conditions specified in this proposed bill. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug because it has no accepted medical value and has a high potential for addiction."

Approving such a bill would increase crime, send the wrong message to youth, and undo the positive impacts of years of anti-drug education in the state, the group claims.

Others express a fear that approval of medicinal marijuana is just a smokescreen for the real agenda - to legalize the drug entrely.

NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, supported the Iowa bill and said that the concerns are misplaced.

"It will not alter or interfere with already existing state laws discouraging the non-medical, recreational use of marijuana," NORML leaders said of the bill. "The use of marijuana as medicine is a public health issue; it should not be part of the war on drugs."

NORML claims the states that have approved medicinal marijuana - Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington - have not seen widespread increases in drug abuse among adolescents or adult recreational users.

"It is unconscionable to deny this effective medicine to sick and dying patients," the organization said.

Because a subcommittee took no action on the bill, it will apparently not go to the floor for a full vote of the Senate - at least a temporary victory for opponents and a stinging at least temporary defeat for supporters.

But for Douglass, it is just another step.

"If people are talking about it and learning about it, it can only be good," she said. "After all these years, it is getting closer."



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