Marijuana: Politics vs. medicine

Pilot Staff Writer

It's been a taxing, uphill battle the entire way, but Barb Douglass and George McMahon refuse to give up. The two advocate the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, so that those who need it and want it can get it.

Just back from a two-day National Conference on Marijuana Use Prevention, Treatment and Research sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., the two were given some hope that their perseverance has not been in vain and hope remains that somewhere in the not too distant future, marijuana will once again be available for medicinal purposes.

This Saturday they continue their battle in Des Moines as Iowan's for Medical Marijuana rally at noon on the West Steps of the Capitol Building to publicize their cause and try to get lawmakers' support.

Marijuana, they claim, is a "miracle drug" and politics is getting in the way of medicine, causing needless suffering and mental anguish on the part of patients.

Their opinion -- although neither are a doctor or scientist -- carries weight. Douglass, who lives in Lakeside, and McMahon, of Bode, are two of only eight medical patients in the United States who are legally prescribed marijuana.

Every month, the two receive 300 marijuana cigarettes from the federal government as part of what is now a "21-year experiment" to evaluate the benefits for marijuana on specific illnesses. Douglass, who has been on the program since 1991, and McMahon, who has been on the program since 1990, are prescribed 10 cigarettes a day to help ease their pain. Douglass, who at one time was blind from multiple sclerosis, is now only legally blind and she credits marijuana for the partial restoration of her sight. The drug also acts as a relaxant for the spasticity that occurs in her legs due to MS.

McMahon, who suffers from a neurological disorder called Nail Patella Syndrome causing muscle spasms and brittle bones, has had 20 operations to date and is in a constant state of pain. Marijuana not only eases that pain, it improved his condition, relaxing muscle spasms without the awful side effects that other legal prescription drugs induce, according to McMahon.

While disappointed that the Washington, D.C. conference officially spoke towards the harmful effects of illegal drug use from state department heads and ways to keep juveniles and adults away from drug use, privately, Douglass and McMahon, who were invited to the conference, received solid support from the audience full of counselors, doctors and scientists. "It wasn't the scientific convention we thought it was going to be," Douglass said.

However, support is growing for their cause and McMahon can feel it. Today, 36 states have passed laws that allow marijuana for medical use with Iowa being one of them. Debate among physicians about prescribing marijuana is getting louder in some circles although doctors still remain fearful about promoting it, afraid that there will be a mad dash to their door, according to McMahon. In June an article entitled "Marijuana as Medicine: A Plea for Reconsideration" was published by two doctors in the American Medical Association to add to the list of professionals supporting the drug for medical use.

The article claims much of what marijuana patients have testified to -- marijuana has been found useful as an anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant in spastic disorders, as an appetite stimulant in the wasting syndrome of human immunodeficiency virus infection and is also useful for relieving phantom limb pain and menstrual cramps. It has also been helpful in treating glaucoma, nausea from chemotherapy in cancer patients, epilepsy, arthritis, MS and spinal fluid injuries.

The problem, McMahon said, remains among law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which adamantly opposes any legalization of marijuana.

A bill is anticipated in Congress hopefully within this year or next to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes. McMahon and Douglass said they have been contacted by Barney Frank and Pat Buchanan for input on possible legislation for debate by lawmakers.

"The problem we have now, is not telling senators to support us, privately, many of them already do, but to tell others. Their problem is they don't know who to talk to," McMahon said.

Other organizations advocating the legalization of marijuana for recreational use are also muddying up the issue, McMahon claims. "They're doing their ever loving best to help us at the same time they promote their cause, but we're not worried about that. That's not what we stand for, that's not what we're after," he said.

While McMahon and Douglass hope that one day all of those suffering from illnesses have access to marijuana, their immediate mission remains smaller and much more personal. Both would like to see their friend Ladd Huffman, a Vietnam veteran suffering from MS, and McMahon's daughter Linda, who also suffers from the same genetic disorder as her father, given permission to use marijuana for their illnesses. Huffman was already approved as a marijuana patient for the same program that McMahon and Douglass are in but the program was put on hold in 1992 and no one besides the eight already receiving marijuana were given the drug.

Pilot Tribune (Storm Lake, Iowa), July 11, 1995.