PA ponders medical marijuana

    New Jersey is poised to become the next state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes. It took advocates years to push the bill through the General Assembly — and the result is a compromise that would create the most restrictive medical marijuana law yet. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers just kicked off their debate last month.

    New Jersey is poised to become the next state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes. It took advocates years to push the bill through the General Assembly — and the result is a compromise that would create the most restrictive medical marijuana law yet. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers just kicked off their debate last month. For the Health and Science Desk, Taunya English reports on worries from opponents and one patient’s story.

    Listen:

    [audio:100114teweed.mp3]

    Walter: I have this little spiky cylinder thing, here, called an herb grinder. You put it in, and then just twist it a couple times, nice and fine and scoop it into the pipe.

    Bradley Walter starts his day by breaking the law.

    Walter: Once you get a little bit in there, I take my lighter and hold it in. And then I blow it into my air freshener. Then I get up and I do what I gotta do.

    Bradley Walter
    Bradley Walter
    Walter is HIV positive. Antiretroviral medications keep the AIDS virus in check, and except for the underlying HIV infection, Walter says he’s healthy.

    Walter: There are side effects to the medications, and that’s the real problem. Diarrhea, constipation in the same day, in the same hour sometimes.

    The prescription drugs that keep Walter alive keep him feeling sick. He uses smoked and vaporized marijuana to settle his stomach and says those notorious marijuana munchies combat weight loss from HIV. But most of all, weed relieves his pain.

    Walter: I wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed if I didn’t know that this was waiting, because as soon as I wake up the pain starts, and it’s, it’s pretty intense.

    Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed says he has compassion for patients like Bradley Walter, but he’s not convinced that the push for medical marijuana is really about patients.

    Freed: I’m very concerned that representatives of legalization groups, specifically NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, are somewhat using these patients as an initial front in a larger legalization war.

    Legalization advocates argue that marijuana is less dangerous than other mood altering drugs, such as oxycontin and morphine, which are available with a prescription. Nonetheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies cannabis as a drug with a high potential for abuse.

    DSCN06102District Attorney Freed says the Pennsylvania proposal may not prevent recreational users from posing as patients. He and other law enforcement professionals say relaxed marijuana laws will lead to more drug-related crime.

    Freed:
    In the county that I prosecute cases in, we’ve had recently a murder directly related to marijuana dealing. We see the forgeries and the thefts and the burglaries that are a direct result of addiction. And we also see – and I know this is a matter of some of debate — but we also see the real gateway nature of marijuana.

    Federal regulators say there isn’t enough science to back smoked marijuana as a medicine. The FDA has approved a medicine made from a synthetic form of a chemical in cannabis. This drug, called Marinol, comes in pill form, with none of the carcinogens that come with smoking.

    Bradley Walter says the prescription pills help with nausea, but do little to relieve his pain. Besides he says Marinol can cost more than $1,000 a month; Walter spends about $500 on marijuana each month.

    Walter: I would smoke more if it weren’t for the cost, and that would be alleviated by growing it in my basement because the cost would be nothing, dirt.

    The Pennsylvania legislation would allow patients to grow six cannabis plants at home or buy the drug from a marijuana dispensary.
    For now, Walter buys his weed from someone he found online. He risks arrest each time he meets up with his dealer, but says it’s a better option that trying to buy weed on the streets of his hometown, Larksville in northeast Pennsylvania.

    Walter: It’s not that easy for a guy like me to drive up in a new Prius and just ask somebody on the corner.

    The drug-abuse prevention group MomsTell is fighting the bill. Camp Hill resident Sharon Smith leads the group and says the marijuana dispensaries would be run by people with no medical license, and no requirement to regulate the safety or potency of the drug. She’s baffled that state lawmakers have decided they can determine what is medicine and what’s isn’t.

    Smith: We have the FDA to do that and this should go before the FDA.

    Even advocates call Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana bill — long-shot legislation. Still, a recent Quinnipiac University poll suggests strong support among Commonwealth residents. Fifty-nine percent of surveyed Pennsylvanians said allowing adults to use marijuana as medicine, with a doctor’s prescription, is a “good idea.”

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