Medical Marijuana: The Power of Pot

7:29 pm Health Stories

DAWN SHURMAITIS

He couldn’t stand to watch his mother suffer.

So he turned the law-abiding housewife into an illegal drug user.

He did it out of love, and desperation.

The drugs prescribed by his mother’s doctor did little to relieve the pain
caused by her cancer, which transformed the once-robust miner’s wife into a
bedridden skeleton.

The son, who’d lived with his mother all his life in a small house by the
Susquehanna, begged the doctor for something more, anything to quiet the
moans coming from the darkened bedroom.

The doctor took him aside. Try marijuana, he said. Smoke it with your mom
at bedtime. Maybe it’ll help.

But, he cautioned his patient’s distressed son, you didn’t hear it from me.

The 65-year-old woman strongly believed in law and order, in right and
wrong. She was more likely to laugh at Martin and Lewis than Cheech and
Chong. But on the advice of a trusted doctor, she broke the law on a
nightly basis, sharing a joint with her son.

Afterward, she slept. Two months later, she died.

Her son has no regrets.

“One joint and she was out, she slept,” he says. “It worked beautifully.”

Marijuana as medicine? Dope as drug?

When Kingston dentist Harold Weltman testified last month he’d been growing
marijuana in his basement to research its effect on Alzheimer’s, diabetes
and gum disease, the unique defense drew laughs and titters from courtroom
observers.

The jury didn’t buy it either.

It found Weltman, 61, and his wife, Mary, guilty of growing marijuana. The
couple, who is appealing their conviction, faces 10 years in jail and the
loss of their home under the drug forfeiture law. Weltman also could lose
his dental license.

While Weltman’s defense appeared ludicrous to some, others — including
physicians — say marijuana is being used medically, not by long-haired
hippies to cop a high but by seriously ill patients to relieve suffering.

Long used by cancer victims to combat the nausea caused by chemotherapy,
the drug is increasingly lauded by AIDS sufferers as a cheaper alternative
to other, more expensive drugs.

Marijuana’s medical value has been debated for years, by government
officials, doctors and users. Often compared to cocaine and morphine —
illegal on the streets, available from doctors — marijuana was until March
prescribed to a small pool of patients in the U.S. whose doctors convinced
the federal government the weed was vital to their physical well-being.

Area doctors, however, say there’s enough legal medicine available to make
it unnecessary to decriminalize marijuana for medical use. Still, marijuana
continues to be cited by some local people who say they use it to relieve a
variety of ills.

Weltman’s wife said she made tea from it to drink during painful menstrual
cramps. One sickly, homebound Kingston Township man buys it from his maid
to smoke at night as a sedative. A Back Mountain senior citizen arrested 15
years ago by police for possession claimed he used the pot to relieve the
arthritis that crippled his fingers.

It’s not listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference, but patients nonetheless
continue to ask area doctors about marijuana as medicine.

“No question,” says Dr. Thomas Sharkey, a Kingston eye doctor who treats
glaucoma. “It (marijuana) lowers the intraocular pressure in the eye. It’s
a well-known fact. It does do it. Patients ask about it all the time.”

But, says Sharkey, he does not recommend patients use the illegal substance
because of the effectiveness of legal alternatives.

“I don’t think (decriminalization) is that critical,” he says. “It’s not
like we could save eyes we couldn’t otherwise save.”

Man-made paranoia

He’s 35 years old and he’s dying from AIDS.

To help him cope, his doctor prescribed Marinol, which features
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

In effect, Marinol is man-made pot, a pill manufactured since 1985 at the
behest of the government.

But this AIDS patient says Marinol is far too potent and much too expensive
— a daily dose costs approximately $30-$35. According to the Physicians
Desk Reference, it can produce both physical and psychological dependence.

Says the AIDS patient, a New York City AIDS activist who did not want his
name used: “If I take a pill I really go psychotic for 12 hours. I can’t
leave my house, or even cross the street to buy a piece of fruit. I get too
paranoid.”

So instead, every few months, he shells out $50 to buy a 1/5 ounce of
marijuana from a street dealer in New York City. One of two hits from a
joint make him feel better, he says, but not psychotic.

Local doctors who prescribe Marinol agree the drug is not for everyone. But
none advocates marijuana, although they’ve heard of the practice.

In 1991 Harvard University’s JFK School of Government found 44 percent of
surveyed national leading cancer specialists tell their patients privately
to use marijuana. Up to 80 percent of those doctors felt marijuana should
be available by prescription.

Critics of the study say it’s biased because only those doctors predisposed
to approving marijuana as medicine would answer the survey.

Dr. Paul Roda, director of medical education at Hazleton General Hospital,
says the two to three older patients of his who’ve used Marinol found it
“totally useless” because the drug made them “unpleasantly confused instead
of pleasantly high.”

Based on his experiences at a large East Coast hospital in the late 1970s,
Roda says nearly identical results occurred in cancer patients who smoked
marijuana.

Back then, doctors allowed some patients suffering from leukemia to smoke
marijuana behind closed doors at the hospital. Roda found younger patients
liked the marijuana and didn’t mind the hallucinatory side effects, but
that older patients were bothered by the euphoric feeling.

“We told patients we didn’t want to know about it,” Roda says. “It was a
common practice back then in medical school hospitals that dealt with
younger cancer patients.

“It seemed to help them. They still vomited but they didn’t complain about
it as much.”

The doctor says he still occasionally gets a query from a younger patient
about the use of marijuana.

“I do not recommend the recreational use of marijuana,” says Roda. “But
back when I was a resident trainee it seemed to work for them.”

Dr. Bruce Saidman, medical director of Hospice Saint John in Wilkes-Barre,
says he recommends Marinol to the few patients who ask him about marijuana.

“With marijuana I always worry about the carcinogenic effect of smoking on
the lungs. You’re exposing your lungs to tar and nicotine,” Saidman says.
“I’m not enthused as an oncologist. As long as I have a pill to prescribe,
no.”

A few years back, Dr. Karen Cooper, a medical oncologist in Kingston,
personally knew someone who went through chemotherapy at a major cancer
center. The woman didn’t respond to any other medication to combat the
nausea and after discussing using marijuana with her doctors was advised to
try it “if she’d gotten to the last straw and nothing else worked.”

While Cooper herself doesn’t advocate the use of marijuana, she can
understand why some patients may use it as an alternative to the more
expensive Marinol.

Many AIDS sufferers frustrated by the government’s seemingly lax attitude
toward finding a cure for AIDS have turned to an underground of treatment,
therapy and unorthodox drugs.

Marijuana is one such option.

Lisa Jansen-Rees, a case manager for the Wyoming Valley AIDS Council, says
the board governing the council “doesn’t promote the use of marijuana but
realizes the urgent need for treatment that’s exceeded what the medical
community can offer.

“People with AIDS have been self medicating themselves since the beginning
in response to a non-moving government.”

Courts don’t buy it

No matter how sick they are, no matter how strong their argument, few
accused drug users have won court cases by using a marijuana-as-medicine
defense.

On Oct. 24, a judge in Santa Cruz refused to dismiss marijuana cultivation
charges filed against a 40-year-old woman who claimed she used the weed as
a medicine.

Her attorney based his defense on medical necessity and called a California
doctor to testify the marijuana helped ease seizures the woman suffered
since a car accident 19 years ago. Other drugs she used left her a
vegetable but did not ease the seizures.

In early 1989 a Florida couple, Kenneth and Barbara Jenks, contracted AIDS
through a blood transfusion Kenneth, a hemophiliac, was given.

The couple began smoking marijuana after they learned about it through an
AIDS support group they were attending. Both suffered from nausea, vomiting
and appetite loss caused by AIDS or the drug AZT and doctors feared Barbara
Jenks would starve to death before the disease killed her.

A year into smoking pot an informant turned the Jenks into police, who
raided their home and confiscated two marijuana plants they had been
growing. At their trial, the Jenks also used the defense of medical
necessity, which had succeeded only three times previously in the U.S.

In the end, the judge convicted the couple, although he imposed essentially
no punishment. Barbara Jenks has since died. Her husband has become the
last surivivng AIDS patient to gain legal access to marijuana.

While numerous groups continue to lobby for the decriminalization of
marijuana for use as a medicine, law enforcement officers continue to
arrest and prosecute those caught using it, whether they claim it’s an
antidote or not.

“It’s a whole hell of a lot different to need medicine like marijuana than
to use crack on a street corner,” says a 45-year-old professional from
Wilkes-Barre, a member of the Wyoming Valley AIDS Council. “You have to
look at it in context.

“If reducing the pain a person is experiencing means allowing them access
to a chemical that’s otherwise illegal what’s the harm?”

Plenty, says Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski, whose
office prosecuted Weltman. The dentist testified he grew the marijuana not
for personal use, but to use as research into possible medical benefits. He
claimed his dental license gave him that right.

“Historically, marijuana use has led to the use of other, harder drugs,”
says Olszewski, who is opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana for
medical purposes. “The use of marijuana proliferates other crimes like
theft, robbery and murder.”

Olszewski refused to entertain a hypothetical case that might involve the
prosecution of someone who used marijuana as treatment for a serious
illness, but allowed: “We as prosecutors would look at each case
differently and weigh the merits of each case.

“I’d try to do what’s right in each case, what’s right and what’s proper.
My sworn duty is to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth.”

The law

Not all law enforcement officials agree with Olszewski.

At the urging a Kansas attorney general, who had cancer and wanted to use
marijuana as a pain reliever, the National Association of Attorneys General
in 1983 passed a resolution favoring medical marijuana.

A similar resolution was passed by The National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers.

All told, 34 states — excluding Pennsylvania, which held its own hearings
in the mid 1970s — have over the years legislatively recognized
marijuana’s medical use and made it available for medical research.

“They’ve already approved morphine and cocaine — extremely powerful drugs
— for medical use,” says Bob Gentzel, a spokesman for state Attorney
General Ernie Preate. “If someone could make a good case for the medical
use of marijuana the FDA would approve it.

“There would be nothing inconsistent about supporting the prosecution of
the illegal use of marijuana and allowing possession for medical uses if a
valid reason can be established.”

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