The Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier
Friday, January 24, 1996, Page 1
Fax: 319-291-2069

Lawyers battle over man's
medicinal marijuana use

Courier Staff Writer


     A probation revocation hearing for a convicted drug offender turned into an extended -- and sometimes heated -- debate Thursday over the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
     The center of Thursday's stormy session in Black Hawk County District Court was Allen Helmers, who readily admits he uses marijuana despite being ordered to stop as part of his probation for a 1995 drug offense.
     Helmers, 48, claims he needs the drug to control pain caused by fibromyalgia, back problems and injuries suffered when his motorcycle was struck by a drunken driver in 1994.
     "I got the point where I couldn't function," said Helmers, who brought along a large bucket filled with bottles of prescription painkillers he had tried.  He also had at least 14 people, many of whom deal with chronic pain, in the audience to back his claims.
     "A lot of times, I wish instead of sentencing me ... they'd just have taken me behind the barn and shot me," Helmers said.  "There's really no hope for this (fibromyalgia) disease."
     Athorities, however, contend Helmers has a 30-year history of marijuana use that pre-dates his accidents and injuries.
     Tony Janney, of the Black Hawk County Attorney's Office, even hinted Helmers might be fabricating his claims of pain to justify continuing to smoke marijuana.
     "He is a long-term marijuana user, he is probably addicted to it ... he doesn't really need it," Janney said.
     While Helmers could go to prison for the violation, both Janney and the judge agreed that wouldn't be productive.  What the County Attorney's Office has suggested is Helmers be placed in the violator's program, where he could be treated for drug addiction.
     The bottom line, Janney added, is marijuana is not approved for medical use in Iowa, so Helmers violated his probation.
     "The bottom line," replied Helmers's attorney, Thomas Frerichs, "is there is no (other) pain medication for this guy."
     Helmers was arrested in February 1995 during a drug raid on his home; police had information he was dealing methamphetamines, but instead found about three ounces of marijuana.  He later pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and failure to have an Iowa drug tax stamp.
     He received two five-year prison sentences on both counts, but the prison time was suspended in favor of probation.  One condition: Helmers agreed not to use illegal drugs.
     Helmers told Judge Jon Fister he admitted at the time he would be unable to comply with that part of his probation.  Other forms of pain treatment have been unsuccessful, he said, and he's allergic to opiate-based drugs like morphine that are commonly used to treat severe, chronic pain.
     His probation officer, Patrick Weber, testified Thursday Helmers is a model probationer who never failed to be on time, much less miss a meeting.  But he had to report the violation when Helmers tested positive for marijuana use in August and October 1995.
     Janney questioned why Helmers hadn't sought to get marinol, a legal marijuana pill.  Helmers and Frerichs responded that marinol is restricted to patients with AIDS or cancer, and could not be prescribed for fibromyalgia.
     An area physician who specializes in pain treatment and control, Dr. W.D. Verduyn, testified he would prescibe marijuana for Helmers if it was within his power.
     "Marijuana seems to have some (painkilling) abilities ...," Verduyn testified.  "Many of my patients with severe pain report to me that they have pain control when they smoke marijuana."
     Before the hearing, Fister suggested Helmers' case be shifted from the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, by modifying the terms of his probation.  If the County Attorney's Office wanted to pursue the matter further, it could then do so in criminal court.
     "It's a mistake to involve DCS in medical-legal problems if they don't have the expertise," Fister said.
     But Janney argued that would be tantamount to giving Helmers free license to smoke the drug.
     "First and foremost, marijuana is contraband," said Janney. "What the court is proposing is that the defendant be able to use an illegal substance."
     Fister denied that was his intent.
     "It just seems to me a probation revocation is the wrong venue to deal with this matter," he said.  "This is a cutting-edge kind of problem, and it seems to me ... court is the right place to thrash it out."
     Fister is expected to render a decision at a later date. He indicated Thursday he is leaning toward placing Helmers in a violators program, with a staff member who also has fibromyalgia to help him find alternatives to cope with his pain.
     Frerichs, however, argued his client has already demonstrated other treatments and medications won't work, and that placing him in the program would force Helmers to needlessly endure pain.
     "Isn't it cruel and inhumane to tell this person, 'We know marinol's not available to you, and other pain medications aren't working, but you'll just have to live with it?'" asked Frerichs.