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November 13, 1996, pages 10-11.

The forbidden cure

For years marijuana has been taboo, denounced as a street evil.
But chronically ill patients are rediscovering cannabis,
and looking to the Legislature for help.
By Jeff Inman

        Allen Helmers is fighting for his life.  He's scheduled to go to court on Nov. 20 for violating his parole.  Cops found nearly a half-pound of marijuana in his one-room apartment in Waterloo.  He's been convicted of possession once before.
        "If I go to prison, I just hope to God I find the strength to survive," Helmers says.
        Helmers isn't out to get high.  He needs it to live.  The victim of a drunk driving accident, Helmers broke his back in six places.  In order to make him mobile, his vertebrae were fused.  The accident also acted as a catalyst.  He has fiber malisia, a disease that slowly eats the soft tissue of the body.  With his immune system lowered, the disease kicked into overdrive and hasn't quit since.  He is in chronic pain.
        Doctors pumped him full of pills, hoping to find the right combination of chemicals to make it go away.  It didn't work.  Helmers jokes that he has "a five gallon bucket of empty prescriptions" that did more damage than good.  Then someone suggested marijuana.
        "I've tried almost every kind of pill out there," the fortyish Helmers says.  "I just left the hospital yesterday with a bleeding stomach because of the side effects.  But the courts seem to think there's some sort of magic pill out there that will cure everything.  The pills just make me sicker.  Marijuana is the only thing that works."
        For years marijuana has been a taboo drug in the eyes of the law.  Since it was outlawed by the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, cannabis has been denounced as everything from "wacky tabacky" to one of the most evil drugs on the street -- rarely as a remedy for what ails you.
        In recent years, however, the medical world has been rediscovering marijuana, studying the plant for medicinal applications.  Once prescribed as a quick fix for a migraine or as a muscle relaxant, marijuana is now being used to ease the pain of AIDS and cancer patients.  Lester Grinspoon, a professor at Harvard Medical School, has been studying the plant since 1967.  He says marijuana helps with everything from rare diseases to PMS, and has the potential to aid thousands of people.
        "Marijuana is a remarkably safe, non-toxic medicine, that, if it becomes available, will be inexpensive and unbelievably versatile," Grinspoon says.  There are over 45 symptoms it works for, everything from nausea to muscle spasms."
        Yet marijuana won't be sold over the counter any time soon.  It's the forbidden cure.  Few are allowed access.  Listed as a Schedule I drug by the Controlled Substances Act, it's considered highly dangerous, inviting abuse, with little or no medical value.  Patients must prove they have a medical necessity to use the drug, which often translates into drawn out court battles.
        Only eight people in the United States receive marijuana legally.  George McMahon is one of them.  He has Nailpattla Syndrome, which causes everything from pain and spasms to nausea.  Doctors said he'd be dead by now.  Once they gave him six hours to live.  He climbed into his car, lit up a joint and had his wife drive him home.  Now holed up at his house in Bode, Iowa, McMahon gets a half pound of marijuana from the government every month, smoking up to 10 joints a day.
        "It doesn't work the same way when you have to use it," McMahon says.  "When you smoke a joint in anticipation of getting high, you do.  I don't get the euphoric part.  I get to forget about my pain.  All these generals and cops keep coming out and saying that there's no evidence that this works, but then why am I in this program.  I'm evidence.  There's people out there like me who need this."
        Patients may now have a chance to get marijuana legally.  California and Arizona recently passed initiatives allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to those who need it.  Rather than denying patients the drug and forcing them to buy it illegally off the street, both Arizona's Proposition 200 and California's Proposition 215 put control of the drug in the hands of the government, regulating potency and dosage.
        But that's only two states.  McMahon wants to see cannabis legalized across the board, especially at home.  Since Iowa doesn't have propositions on the ballot, he has to work for legislative reform.  He, along with co-founder Carl Olsen, started Iowan's for Medical Marijuana.  Their intent: push the legislature into action, with Helmers as the point man.  It won't be easy.  Legislators are weary of legalizing something that carries so much political baggage.
        "I'm not convinced this is something the medical community wants," says Rep. Jeff Lamberti (R-Ankeny).  "I don't see them saying this is something they need, and some are saying it does more harm than good."
        Rep. Robert Brunkhorst (R-Waverly) agrees: "I don't favor it.  I think there are alternative drugs out there that are better suited than marijuana."
        But some legislators are more sympathetic.  Republican Sen. Gene Maddox of Clive, while by no means endorsing marijuana use, hasn't closed the door.
        "I'd be open to it on a restricted basis.  But I have a lot of questions that need answered before I can make up my mind."
        For now Helmers is caught in the crossfire.  Until the debate is over or he proves he has a medical necessity, he'll continue to smoke illegally.  It's the only way the pain will go away.
        "Every day I decide whether I should kill myself or not, whether the pain is too much," Helmers says.  "It's bad enough being ill without having to deal with an uncompassionate government trying to throw you in jail for relieving the pain.  People shouldn't have to hide or feel they are a criminal in order to feel better."

"It's a question of whether or not we want to throw
people in jail for something they think relieves their pain.
They've tried everything else.  Marijuana is all that's left."