WEST / SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS / MAY 14, 1995 Marijuana is said to relieve the suffering of people with cancer, AIDS and other diseases. But are our drug laws Nipping Compassion in the Bud? Cover story: Reefer madness By Tracie Cone [picture] They are law-abiding citizens, but they or someone they love are suffering from grave illnesses, and pharmaceuticals don't ease the pain. So they come to places like the Cannabis Buyers Club. Above, Hazel Rodgers signs up a new patient, Danny O'Dell, who came from Texas. Reefer MADNESS Story by Tracie Cone Law-abiding regular folks descend into a netherworld to get relief for themselves or others with grave diseases. Why morphine and not marijuana? IT'S DUSK ON THE HIGHWAY, the time when the sun disappears and the dwindling light makes objects hard to discern. I see a car growing larger in my rearview mirror, but what's that on the roof? It registers: a police car-with lights and siren off for a sneak attack. My heart pounds so hard my throat hurts. I clutch my steering wheel with sweaty palms. I decide I've been under surveillance since I broke state and federal law 15 minutes earlier in Santa Cruz. My trunk holds marijuana amid golf clubs and dry cleaning. Who would buy the story that I'm taking it to a sick friend? Yet I am. She is waiting at home, her gut churning from her latest round of cancer treatment, and this is the substance she prays will finally bring relief. We had read of people who smoke marijuana to ease the nausea of chemotherapy. She decided to try it after her prescription medication caused near-deadly complications. The prospect of jail is viewed as just another indignity to people who are dying and will try anything to feel good again. When a life is at stake, the rule books often get chucked, no matter how law-abiding the person may be. "What have I got to lose?" she had asked. Near the Pajaro River, I poise my hand on my blink- POT er. Maybe a final act of traffic-law compliance will make the police go easy on me. The car rides my bumper for a second, then pulls to the left and darts past. It's only a Honda Accord with a ski rack on the top. I sigh at the trick played by my paranoid brain and drive home under the comforting cover of darkness. POSSESSING MARIJUANA makes criminals out people who use it to reverse the "wasting syndrome" of AIDS, relax spastic muscles, stifle epileptic seizures or ease the symptoms of a dozen other ailments. It is a misdemeanor in California to possess less than an ounce. People who deliver it to ailing friends are committing a felony. These users rarely fit the law-enforcement profile. They're not social misfits looking for a legal way to get high. It is not a "gateway" to the land of LSD and crack cocaine. They are simply doing what many sick people have done since ancient Egyptians smoked the leaves to cure headaches. Studies have shown that the THC in marijuana, along with some combination of its 460 known compounds, eases nausea in chemotherapy patients and reduces eye pressure in people suffering from blinding glaucoma. Yet the federal Government, spending billions in a popular war on drugs, halted all research that might prove whether the plant is more effective with some people than synthetic drugs on the market. It's absurd that medical decisions are being made by politicians," says Dr. Arnold Jeffe, a Santa Cruz physician. "It's so crazy that this has become such a big deal when, really, it's not a big deal at all." Politics made marijuana illegal in 1937 and politics might soon put it legally back in doctors' hands. San Jose Assemblyman John Vasconcellos has introduced a compassionate-use bill that would allow sick people to use marijuana. "If people are in pain they ought to be able to use marijuana to relieve their pain," Vasconcellos said. "It's none of the government's business in the first place." Should the bill fail, the San Francisco-based group Californians for Compassionate Use has hired a political consultant to get the issue on the November 1996 ballot. The proposition would make Californians the first in the country to decide a medical marijuana law, and the group -- AIDS activists skilled in the art of lobbying and sick people who depend on the drug -- believes the referendum has a chance. They are encouraged by a recent statewide survey they commissioned showing that while few Californians want to make marijuana legal, 66 percent of the 750 randomly questioned respondents would support a law allowing sick people to use it with a doctor's prescription. The law would turn Salinas retirees Dorothy 14 / MAY 14, 1995 / W E S T and Richard Haskell into law-abiding citizens again. They provide marijuana to their 44-year-old daughter, Vicki, who has liver cancer. "Umm, we just want it for, well, medicinal purposes," Dorothy Haskell said. "It breaks our hearts to see our daughter suffer." FOR 25 YEARS the medical marijuana battle has been waged politely by people with glaucoma and cancer. Now it is becoming the vocal, in-your-face fight of AIDS patients who say marijuana's appetite-inducing side effect keeps them from wasting away. AIDS activists just might succeed where others have not: They already have forced the Food and Drug Administration to make experimental drugs available years ahead of schedule. "I've been very conscious of the difference between AIDS patients and cancer and glaucoma patients," says Robert Randall of the non-profit Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, based in Washington, D.C. "AIDS patients tend to be a part of a powerful, organized community of people who are suffering. They look out for each other." AIDS activists were a big part of successful marijuana referendums in San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties. Eighty percent of voters in San Francisco, and 77 percent in Santa Cruz, approved resolutions supporting the use of pot for medical reasons. Medical marijuana advocates want to modify a law that has been in place since 1970. That's when the FDA and Drug Enforcement Agency ruled that the peace movement's drug of choice is as useless to medical science as LSD and heroin. All three became classified as Schedule 1 narcotics -- drugs with no known medical use. Morphine, cocaine and even Marinol -- a synthetic derivative of marijuana's Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- are Schedule 2, which means doctors can prescribe them. Medical marijuana advocates argue that Marinol often doesn't work as well as the real thing -- especially in a vomiting patient -- and want the plant moved to Schedule 2. In April 300 people -- many sick or dying, on crutches and in wheelchairs, in suits and leather, Gray Panthers and gay activists -- gathered on the steps of the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco to draw attention to the fight. "This is our Stonewall!" shouted referendum leader Dennis Peron, comparing the marijuana battle to New York's historic gay freedom struggle. "They are not going to drive us back into our closets. I think back to '65 when cops were dragging our friends to jail -- and now cops want to take AIDS patients to jail." With TV cameras rolling and tour buses creeping by, they dared the DEA to arrest them all. Martin Simmons, 32, scooted his wheelchair to the front of the crowd and screamed the chant: Racist, sexist, anti-gay DEA, go away. "I'm dying," Simmons, an AIDS patient, said afterward. "F--- the law." RICHARD AND DOROTHY HASKELL are proof that need is the thing most likely to convince someone with anti-drug views to accept medical marijuana. My friend had never even seen marijuana. I often drove her to the hospital and witnessed the horrendous nausea she suffered after treatment. Prescription drugs were supposed to settle her stomach, but every day we stopped two or three times on the way home for her dry heaves to pass. At home, she vomited more. She lost the desire to eat and quickly dropped 15 pounds, which in turn made her too weak to withstand strong treatment. This is what cancer sufferers say about anti-nausea drugs such as Zofran (which costs $600 a dose) and Torecan: The side effects can be worse than the problems they're designed to prevent. Sometimes, it's a headache, stupor or insomnia. My friend's pharmaceutical, besides not curing her nausea, constipated her. In most people, that would be uncomfortable but not deadly. But doctors continued giving her the toxic chemical they hoped would kill her cancer cells, and it wasn't leaving her body. In the car beside me one evening, after a violent burst of dry heaves, she stopped breathing. I beat on her chest, screamed frantically and started CPR: "Please breathe. Come back. Please don't die." She didn't die, and later I told her about my aunt who had smoked pot while undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer. My friend has a medicine cabinet full of painkillers, but had never tried an illegal drug. Now she was desperate. I asked friends about buying marijuana on the black market which, law enforcement should be happy to hear, doesn't seem as active as it was a decade ago. Instead I found the medical marijua- na underground. MY FIRST VISIT was with Scott Imler, who runs Citizens for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz. On the cramped top floor of an old downtown Victorian, Imler dispenses advice and marijuana to people he believes are sincere. It helps if they have a note from their doctor -- and almost all the patients Imler helps do. He keeps records on a computer, and a stash in the closet. He sent me home with a good supply of prime sinsemilla buds. Imler, 37, used to be a special education teacher. He grew pot in the late '80s to supply sick friends in San Francisco. In 1992, after sheriffs deputies seized his crop, he worked to pass the Santa Cruz County compassionate-use referendum. Dennis Peron of San Francisco sold marijuana in the 1960s and '70s as the drug culture thrived. In the late '80s he discovered a higher purpose for law-breaking when his lover, dying of AIDS, used marijuana to stimulate his appetite. Looking respectable with Gap clothes and a gray banker-style haircut, Peron now sells marijuana to sick people who can afford it, and gives it to those who can't at his Cannabis Buyers Club, an illegal reefer pharmacy in the city's Castro district. Peron founded the statewide referendum group earlier this year and counts on his buyers club members for support. One Friday in April, however, Peron abruptly closed the doors after he received a tip: The Drug Enforcement Agency would bust him that afternoon. He quickly organized the protest outside the Federal Building because customers were returning to dark Tenderloin street corners or Dolores Park to find supplies. "I haven't eaten in days, I can't sleep," Martin Simmons said. "I don't know what else to do." Valerie and Mike Corral of Davenport began growing marijuana 20 years ago, after reading that it could control Valerie's epileptic seizures. Now they grow enough to share with about a dozen people, all of them dying, who find them by word-of-mouth. With her bobbed hair, slacks and pumps, Valerie, 42, looks more Junior Leaguer than pot grower. Once a week at her mountaintop cabin, she hunches over a tattered "Joy of Cooking" and modifies the traditional Butter Thin cookie recipe. Using marijuana instead of flour, she produces a green cookie that will induce the same effect as smoked marijuana after it meanders through the digestive system. Santa Cruz County Sheriffs deputies have arrested Corral twice and destroyed her plants. Yet even the prospect of prison does not stop her. "There's not a person who could violate me more than a seizure, so I have no fear of cops," she says. May is planting time, and Valerie and Mike are preparing the greenhouse. They plant "Luther Burbank style," growing 100 seedlings, but keeping only the five or six female plants that develop the bushy foliage they're looking for. They might net 15 pounds in a season. "We've learned how to grow healthy plants and get a high yield," says Mike, who has collected seeds for 20 years. "It's genetics." One recipient of their pot is Bill Shanteau, 44, a Cabrillo College instructor who is in the final stages of colon cancer. He waits in bed for the weekly delivery that brings physical, psychological and psychokinetic relief. Yes, sometimes Shanteau just wants to get high. "The point is," Shanteau says, "marijuana is a major agent in keeping me interested in life. Besides restoring my appetite, it's like a hot tub for the brain. It stimulates me intellectually. It keeps me focused in the moment instead of me sitting here thinking I'm dying tomorrow. I hate to think what my life would be like right now if I didn't have it." Shanteau's desire to get high complicates the issue. Marijuana doesn't only ease nausea in sick people; it also makes them high. This troubles pot foes, who see the potential for abuse and distrust the motives of the people who are pushing medical marijuana. Last year in Sacramento, a woman publicly lashed out at Valerie Corral: "She said, 'You People just want to feel good,'" Corral recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah? So? What's the crime in a sick person wanting to feel good?'" TOM GORMAN OF SACRAMENTO cringes when people say anything good about marijuana. A member of the California Narcotics Officers Association, Gorman says that stories of medical miracles are propaganda from people who want to decriminalize drugs. "If you were dying of cancer," says the 27-year veteran of law enforcement, you'd probably grasp at anything. But smoking anything is not good for you. What we're doing in the '90s is the exact same thing we did in the '70s -- we're romanticizing drugs. Once you get a soft attitude, kids get the impression it's not so bad." Gov. Pete Wilson agrees. In 1994 he vetoed a medical marijuana bill passed by the Legislature. An aide says Wilson will veto the Vasconcellos bill if it lands on his desk. "The governor believes it would serve no useful purposes" says spokesman Jesus Arredondo, "when the FDA has already concluded that marijuana is not good." The California Medical Association says marijuana, used under a doctor's order, is often beneficial. The American Medical Association, the only group originally to speak against Congress' 1937 ban, has not taken a stand, but supports more research. The American Bar Association, the National Association of Attorneys General and the Conference of Episcopal Bishops are among the groups calling for the repeal of laws against medical marijuana. Legislators in 35 states, including California, have passed non-binding resolutions supporting its use. From the '40s through the '60s, as science refined pharmaceutical drugs, the medical community began thinking of herbs and botanical treatments as old-fashioned. But in the '70s, recreational users inadvertently discovered marijuana's value to modern medicine; researchers reported that cancer patients they had treated felt better after using the drug. Robert Randall of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics has glaucoma. In 1976, after a lawsuit and weeks of tests at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, he became the first person in the United States to receive marijuana from the federal government. By then he was nearly blind and the tests showed that only marijuana -- not any prescription drug -- would lower his eye pressure and save his sight. The government, he says, had had that information since 1971. "The prospect that an easily grown plant can ease human suffering should be a cause for celebration," he says. "The problem is, we don't live in a sane society." Randall says he smokes pot every day. He still has limited eyesight. From 1978 to 1986, New Mexico health officials tested marijuana on cancer patients who were not helped by other anti- nausea treatment; 90 percent reported improvement. A study in New York showed that 78 percent of 56 cancer patients who didn't respond to other drugs felt better after smoking marijuana. The study, published in 1988, also tested the synthetic THC: One- third of the patients who did not feel better using it did show improvement after smoking marijuana. By 1991, the federal government, still denying marijuana's benefits, was shipping it to 12 people suffering from cancer nausea, glaucoma, chronic pain and muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis. Randall encouraged people with AIDS to apply, as he had, for an application to use an unproven drug. It was a program established by Jimmy Carter after Randall's case became public. Meanwhile, doctors began accepting the use of medical marijuana. A 1991 study by Rick Doblin, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard's Kennedy School, found that 44 percent of the 1,000 cancer specialists who responded to a nationwide survey have told patients that marijuana could relieve nausea. More than half of the oncologists surveyed said it should be available by prescription. Some doctors believe that not telling their patients is cruel. "I have patients who say that it helps them, and I recommend it to patients," says Dr. Leff, 53, of Santa Cruz, who was Cincinnati's Drug and Alcohol Abuse director in the early 1970s. "[Recommending marijuana] is not unusual. It's only a big deal to people with religious or moralistic views about the drug." The FDA, swamped with thousands of unproven drug applications, had approved about two dozen more patients by late 1991. But the Public Health Service under George Bush quietly stopped approving new participants and ended all marijuana research programs. The patients already approved but still waiting for marijuana were out of luck. Today the government provides marijuana to only eight of the original 12 patients. (The other four have died.) "There was a sense, with so many people applying, that we wouldn't have enough marijuana to provide," said Rayford Kytle of the PHS, which grows a small crop in Mississippi. The PHS supported the Bush administration decision by saying that smoking marijuana, like cigarettes, can cause lung cancer. The PHS further warned that smoking it can compromise immune systems already made fragile by AIDS or other diseases. And being under the influence can cause anxiety. Bill Clinton, who says he tried marijuana but didn't inhale, has upheld the ban. His administration added a provision, however, that allows research into medical benefits. Dr. Donald Abrams, assistant director of the AIDS project at San Francisco General Hospital, sought approval to study marijuana's effects on the wasting syndrome associated with AIDS. "The study would not only see whether it's effective, but whether it's harmful," Abrams says. W E S T / MAY 14, 1995 / 17 POT He hoped to study 40 people -- too few to settle the marijuana question but enough to determine whether more research is warranted. He applied to the FDA, the DEA and a state agency that oversees California university research programs. The state approved the study and the FDA signed off after insisting on numerous chances. On April 15, 1994, Abrams crossed what he thought would be the final hurdle when he paid the DEA for a license to distribute a Schedule I drug. The DEA cashed the check, but has yet to approve the research. "Everything I hear is from unofficial channels," Abrams said. "They said they didn't trust my research, or they questioned my credibility. Nobody can give me a direct answer on why this is taking so long." A federal health official offered this reason: "It' s too volatile an issue with the anti-drug people. It's a shame they can't distinguish between a small group of medically needy people and drug abusers." Abrams' struggle has had an unfortunate side effect: It has discouraged others from applying. "Political pressure has demoralized researchers," Doblin says. "It has made it hard to get money for research. If Donald doesn't get permission, nobody is going to try." Few issues besides abortion produce such distrust between camps. Marijuana opponents say we can't say "no" to most drugs but "yes" to one. They say there are enough medications on the market to provide relief. Few politicians want to be viewed as being soft on drugs. The marijuana proponents counter that the government policy is set by pharmaceutical manufacturers who stand to lose billions of dollars in anti-nausea drug sales to a plant they cannot patent. Proponents say medical professionals not bureaucrats, should decide health-care issues. "They're probably right," says the federal health official, who asked for anonymity, "but until people convince their congressional representatives that the law needs to be changed, nothing will be done." In 1988, after two years of public hearings, the DEA's own chief administrative law judge said the drug agency should rewrite its marijuana policy. "It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefit of this substance in light of the evidence of this record," Judge Francis L. Young said. MY FRIEND, who has never smoked a cigarette, didn't know how to inhale her marijuana. We made a pipe by rolling aluminum foil into a tube, then bending one end up slightly. We rolled some into joints. After smoking a few puffs, or eating one of Corral's cookies, my friend had little nausea. She could eat real food again. In four weeks she regained her weight. Her face was full, her cheeks pink. Her eyes, which often seemed dull and half closed, were open and bright. We drove home from the hospital without ever stopping again. "If the government wants to find out whether marijuana can stop cancer patients and AIDS sufferers from throwing up and losing weight -- put them on a scale," Randall says. Dorothy and Richard Haskell decided in March that breaking the law was preferable to watching Vicki suffer. "We were always anti-drug," Dorothy says. "It just wasn't the way we lived." Vicki's pain medication had stopped working. She couldn't sleep or keep food down. The Haskells read about medical marijuana but didn't know where to find any until they read an article in which Imler was quoted. When the Haskells stepped inside Imler's headquarters, they looked as if one more worry would break them. From the parlor wafted the click of typewriter keys as Ed Frey, attorney and former D.A. candidate, worked in his office. Imler gets free office space and a small salary to work as Frey's assistant. The couple stammered nervously. "Anyone who has ever had a child can tell you why we're here," Dorothy said. "It breaks our hearts to see our daughter suffer." "I just want her to be able to sleep, she's in so much pain," Richard said. "It's our daughter, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm not doing anything illegal." All day, Imler helps people like the Haskells, fields phone calls, teaches clients to grow pot for themselves, and solicits donations. "We have an uneasy accommodation with local law enforcement here," he says. "They know we're here, but so far we've been lucky." Politicians know the voters in Santa Cruz County believe sick people should be allowed marijuana if they want it. And Santa Cruz police say they are aware that medical marijuana proponents are active in town, but they are too busy to investigate the movement. "We don't have enough personnel to enjoy the luxury of sitting around and wondering what they're doing," says deputy police chief Jeff Locke. "But our feeling is still that it's against the law." In March, Imler received a letter from Dr. Stephen Stein, medical director of the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency, asking him to provide marijuana to an AIDS patient. "[The patient] reports using marijuana to treat symptoms of nausea and anorexia," Stein wrote. "I have no objection to him using it for this purpose." The local attitude makes District Attorney Art Danner wonder whether prosecuting a medical marijuana case would waste taxpayers money. That's part of the reason he has declined to prosecute Valerie Corral both times sheriffs deputies arrested her. A trial would cost thousands, and a loss would demoralize law enforcement. "Hers was a difficult case," he says. "I don't think I could get a jury to convict her. It's a difficult situation here. On the one hand, we have a lot of terminally ill people using it. On the other hand, we don't want everyone with a headache to use it." Danner, a member of the National Association of District Attorneys' Executive Committee, has asked the group to take up the issue at its annual convention in July. "I suggested we take a good look at the research and see whether it should be moved from the legal to medical jurisdiction," Danner says. "I got a lot of interest from other D.A.s whose constituents are talking to them about this issue. They were more interested than I thought they'd be." About the time the district attorneys meet, members of Californians for Compassionate Use will begin collecting the signatures of 433,000 registered voters. The drive is being conducted by Ken Masterton, a political consultant who qualified recent successful propositions protecting mountain lions and increasing the tobacco tax. THE HASKELLS were unaware of the various political movements when they visited Imler in March. To them, marijuana was a last resort; a trip to the downtown head shop for a pipe too strange to consider. "Uh, no, please, we can't go in there," Dorothy begged. continued on page 22 POT continued from page 19 Imler gave them joints instead of a pipe. Richard held the sealed envelope and folded it in half. He searched his pockets for a paper clip and nervously affixed the halves together. He put the package in his pocket and realized the group had been watching him fumble. "Oh, I don't know what I'm doing," he said. Before leaving for their own nerve-racked drive home, the Haskells gave Imler a $50 bill. It is a huge donation for a shoestring operation dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Timing was good. Donations of pot and money are off. Imler's stash has been of such bad quality lately that even home health- care nurses have called to complain. Back in Salinas, Vicki, who has two high school-age sons, attempted to try the marijuana. Stigma proved a powerful deterrent. "She didn't want to do it in front of her kids," Dorothy Haskell said. "She's back in the hospital now, trying to get her pain medication regulated. I don't think she gave it a chance because she thought it was really wrong. I even took a couple of puffs myself so she would think it was OK. If your child is involved, you'll do anything." IN MID-APRIL Vicki Haskell turned worse. After trying every pain medication prescribed by her doctor, she smoked the marijuana. After weeks of insomnia, she was able to sleep through the night. On April 12, Richard and Dorothy drove back to Santa Cruz to get more. "Every time someone like that leaves, I say, Now I know why we're here," Imler says. Dennis Peron reopened the buyers club a week after he closed it. Martin Simmons was among the 1,500 first-day customers. Peron hopes drug agents won't show, and the DEA's Mike Herald declined to confirm whether Peron is being investigated. If the DEA comes knocking, Peron threatens, agents will have to arrest all 4,000 members. "Tell the jail to stock up on catheters and medical equipment," he says. "The jail is going to be full of sick people. Randall says the marijuana fight reminds him of the struggles of Galileo, the 16th-century astronomer. Galileo saw craters on the moon, but the church replied the moon is perfect. Look through the telescope, Galileo implored. But the church said: No, it's an instrument of the devil. "On the one hand, I'm more optimistic now than I've ever been," Randall says. "AIDS patients have revitalized this movement around the world. Still, bureaucrats resist, even under overwhelming evidence they are destroying people's lives." And that, says Randall, is true reefer madness. My friend recently learned that she is cancer-free for the first time in a decade. Her doctor said part of the reason is that she kept on weight. "You kept your strength up," he told her, "which allowed you to withstand the high doses. I'm trying to determine what combination of chemicals may have caused that." She hopes that someday she will find the courage to tell him. TRACIE CONE is a staff writer for West. Scott Imler has a toll-free number: (800) 355-0289.