Million Marijuana March

Join us on Saturday
May 5th, 2001 at Noon
on the West Steps of the
State Capitol Building
in Des Moines, Iowa

For more information
Carl Olsen, 515-288-5798
Terry Mitchell, 515-789-4442
Becky Terrill, 515-268-3105

May 2, 2001


Is the Legislature wrong for repeatedly stopping attempts to reform the state's cannabis laws?

By Tim Schmitt

The fast-growing leafy green plant usually with five to seven jagged leaves is found around the world.  It grows wild in ditches and fields in almost all climates and all soil conditions, and is cultivated in gardens, government research fields and basement grow rooms.
     Its scientific name is cannabis sativa, a species that includes both hemp and marijuana - two commonly confused plants that are arguably the most controversial and misunderstood in the world.
     Depending on its form, cannabis can be smoked for pleasure, or made into food, fuel, medicine, fiber and countless other things. It was once one of the most important and widely grown crops in the United States, cultivated by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and a required crop in 17th-century Connecticut.
     Cannabis supporters claim the plant could single-handedly save the planet by easing man's afflictions and reducing or eliminating our reliance on environment-damaging fossil fuels.  Opponents consider it the devil's weed, capable of ruining lives, stealing children's innocence and starting users on a one-way journey to drug addiction and ultimately, death.
     So what is the truth about this plant?  It's hard to say.  For every study that shows it to be dangerous, addictive or otherwise nasty, several others are released which claim the opposite.  For each study that hails marijuana as nature's perfect medicine or hemp as the planet's savior, there are a dozen people ready to challenge the results.
     Many countries, Holland, Canada and Australia among them, have eased laws regarding cannabis.  And voters in several states have opted for loosening restrictions for both marijuana and hemp, a move that put those states at odds with the federal government.
     In Iowa, the plant's advocates have been trying for years to convince the Legislature to consider its benefits.  This year legislation was once again introduced which would have allowed the medical use of marijuana and authorized research into the benefits of growing industrial hemp.  And like similar bills, both were dead on arrival.
     Supporters of both the industrial hemp and medical marijuana initiatives believe that most people would agree with them if they had all the information.  And they believe the Legislature would pass the bills if this support were demonstrated.
     This year, in an effort that defies the stereotype of the unmotivated, couch-bound stoner, marijuana and hemp proponents have organized public awareness rallies to take place in more than 120 cities around the planet on May 5.  Among those cities is Des Moines.
     Terry Mitchell, a disabled man in his late 40s has been organizing the rally in Des Moines, which will begin at the state Capitol at noon.  Participants plan to meet there and make their case for the reformation of cannabis laws, then walk to Nollen Plaza, where several bands are set to play until 10 p.m.
     Mitchell started working at 14 years old, pumping gas and changing tires, and continued doing strenuous physical labor until he was in his mid-40s, when the pain in his back forced him to quit.
     Mitchell rarely leaves his small Dexter, Iowa, home these days, and leans heavily on a cane whenever he's on his feet, usually bent at the waist into a near fetal position.  He has been in constant pain for several years from the degenerative disc disease that put him on permanent disability and is causing his spine to slowly crumble away.  Most days he cannot walk to the end of his street, only a block and a half away, without stopping several times to rest and allow the pain to subside.
     A slew of prescribed medicines has failed to provide Mitchell relief, or did so at the expense of mobility.  They either failed to ease the pain or left him a zombie, unable to move from his bed for more than an hour or two each day.
     "I'd been on pain killers and muscle relaxers for two years," he says.  "I was either asleep 20 hours a day or a walking zombie and I was still in pain."
     Terri Valko lives in Des Moines and suffers from the same disease as Mitchell.  Several of her vertebrae have been replaced with metal plates.  After years of yoga and with quite a bit of effort, Valko can now turn her head almost to her shoulder.
     Valko, too, has been prescribed a lot of drugs.  Years of morphine, Vicodin and other drugs have taken their toll, eating away at her stomach and throat to the point where she required surgery on her esophagus.
     "I've had a lot of surgeries and a lot of pain," she says.  "The medicines are just eating me up.  All I want is to not hurt anymore."
     Mitchell and Valko are two of the thousands of chronically ill people who have found relief by smoking marijuana.  And like all but the eight people in the country who receive medical marijuana from the federal government, they are breaking the law every time they light up.
     "I don't smoke to get high," says Mitchell.  "I take it like medicine.  The main point behind me smoking is being able to get up and move."
     Valko echoes this statement, saying smoking pot is not about getting a buzz, but about getting relief.
     "I really started smoking to try to avoid taking all the medications," she says.  "The side effects are killing me."
     Valko and Mitchell have been straightforward with their physicians about their marijuana use, and both say the doctors have been as supportive as they legally can with their decision to self-medicate with the drug.
     "The only bad side effect of smoking cannabis is the guy with the bubble gums on the car," says Mitchell.

Marijuana is nature's perfect medicine, say those who use it as such.  And prohibiting its use is a crime against those who suffer without it.  Patients with glaucoma, cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, arthritis and spinal cord injuries have all reported benefits from smoking or eating the plant.
     From 1850 until it was outlawed in 1937, tincture of cannabis was the primary medicine used to treat more than 100 illnesses, everything from menstrual cramps to epilepsy, and the American Medical Association opposed removing marijuana from the pharmacopoeia.
     In 1970, the Controlled Substance Act turned control of marijuana over to law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency.  It was classified as a schedule 1 narcotic, meaning it was banned from research and prescription.
     "Prohibition leads to the black market, and the only control available is law enforcement," says Derrick Grimmer, staff adviser for the ISU chapter of NORML (The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws).  "That's consistently shown to be a failure over time.
     "Everybody seems to be leaning that way (toward legalization or decriminalization) except the United States and places like Saudi Arabia and Singapore.  If the United States wants to be in league with those countries, then that's another story."
     Barbara Douglass has been smoking pot - nine ounces a month - since 1992 and credits the medicine with saving her life.
     "I think marijuana should be recognized as the medicine it is," she says.  "The biggest benefit is I'm still alive.  It's given me a way and a reason to carry on."
     Unlike Mitchell and Valko, Douglass takes her medicine legally.  In 1992, Douglass, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, became the last patient approved to receive medical marijuana under a program run by the federal government.
     Douglass is now 47 years old and still lives on her own in a small house on Spirit Lake, and the progression of her disease has been slower than usual.
        "I've been told repeatedly that I've beaten the odds," she says.  "I'm still walking, I'm not in a wheelchair, or a nursing home, and I know it's the pot.  I feel very sorry for these people that they can't help their diseases with marijuana as I have."
     Grimmer says it would be better to bring marijuana, and other drugs, into the sphere of regulation, much like alcohol and tobacco, so they could be taxed and controlled.
     "I think it's clear that the drug war is a failure and the drug war is basically a war against marijuana," he says.  "Marijuana is not an addictive drug; alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are.  The same rules should be applied to marijuana as these drugs."
     To bolster his argument, he rattles off the statistics: A half million dead from tobacco-related illness each year; 150,000 alcohol-related deaths, not including drunken driving fatalities.  Caffeine annually causes about 1,000 deaths a year, and even aspirin kills more than 100 people annually.
     But no death has ever been attributed to marijuana.
     At one time the DEA's own administrative law judge, Judge Francis Young, said there is "accepted safety for the use of marijuana under medical supervision and to deny that would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious."
     Mitchell says keeping cannabis illegal is purely a political move, one meant to protect those with a financial interest in keeping it illegal at the expense of people who would benefit from its many uses.
     "The only people opposed to it are those it would affect," he says.  "The cotton industry would suffer, the timber industry would suffer and the prison industry would suffer."
     Mitchell has planned the rally to start at the Capitol at noon.  Protesters will later walk together to Nollen Plaza, but because of the discs that are crumbling in his back, it's a walk that Mitchell will likely be unable to complete.
     "I'll try like hell, but I don't think I'll make it."

Ditchweed, as it's often called, can be found across the state.  Almost everyone's heard a tale from a relative or friend who dried and smoked an armful of the stuff only to end up with a sore throat and a headache.
     This is hemp.  The leafy green plant that pops up almost everywhere from roadsides to back yards.  It is not marijuana.  Smoking it cannot and will not get you high.
     Marijuana contains the chemical THC, which causes mild euphoria when smoked or eaten.  Hemp has only trace amounts of THC, not nearly enough for even the weakest lightweight to cop a buzz.
     Hemp can save the planet, claims its proponents.  Its seed can be transformed into fuel and food, the rest of the plant can be turned into an almost endless variety of products, from clothing to building materials, and hemp can be grown more sustainably with less damage to the environment than other crops.  It could save farms and boost a slumping economy, provide jobs for thousands and decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels.
     The United States once relied heavily on hemp for industry before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 outlawed the plant.  The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and the sails of ships in the Revolutionary War were made of hemp, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the plant, and in 1640 the governor of Connecticut declared, "Every citizen must grow the plant."
     Even after it was outlawed in 1937, the U.S. government launched a campaign in the '40s to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war effort.  "Hemp for Victory," was the call, but after the war, hemp production was again prohibited.
     But the hemp industry has grown exponentially since then, and the United States has missed out.  Hemp-based products, from beauty supplies to clothing, can be purchased at many retail outlets, and Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein all include hemp products in their clothing lines.  Sales of hemp products in the United States in 1994 were estimated at $25 million, but none of the product originates within our borders.
     France harvests approximately 10,000 tons of hemp annually.  It is cultivated legally throughout much of Europe and Asia, and test plots have been successfully cultivated in Canada and Australia.
     The fear in the United States is largely that allowing hemp is the first step on the slippery slope to marijuana legalization.  It has also been suggested that hemp fields could, and likely would, be used to hide marijuana plants, an impossible act given that marijuana growing anywhere near the vicinity of hemp would be rendered impotent by cross-pollination.  No country that currently allows the cultivation of industrial hemp has reported experiencing an increase of marijuana use.
     Though the federal government and the DEA maintain their opposition to hemp, several states are looking into the possibility of growing it within their borders.  Hawaii, Kentucky, Vermont, North Dakota and several other states have passed industrial hemp research legislation and it's been proposed many times in other states.
     Several years ago Roger Gipple went to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to get them on board with the industrial hemp idea.  Iowa's farmers are hurting and are always looking for ways to diversify crops, he figured, so introducing hemp to the state seemed like a no-brainer.  After all, hemp germinates relatively early in the spring in low soil temperature, grows to cultivation in about 100 days and can grow just about anywhere.  It has the potential to be manufactured into more than 25,000 products, and the market for hemp is booming.
     The Farm Bureau was interested and agreed to support the idea.  Legislation was presented which would have allowed research into hemp production to begin and it appeared as though it would pass, but a last-minute call from Gov. Terry Branstad to Republican legislators killed the bill.
     "I came to the realization then that there was a brick wall when it comes to this and that the work needs to be done on a federal level," says Gipple.
     The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is the only federal agency that can legally grant permits to grow hemp, and it is opposed to any revision of existing hemp laws.
     "Even states that have passed industrial hemp initiatives have had the DEA come in and burn it up," says Gipple.
     Henry Ford used industrial hemp to make plastics, lubricants and fuels and called for a plant-based economy with a focus on hemp, an idea that still makes sense to Gipple.
     "We would be raising our own energy and our own fiber, so Iowa would be raising and creating its own building materials, textiles, fuels and lubricants," he says.  "This is something I'll always be working on, but I know it won't happen quickly, in a year or two.  But it will happen."
     "We're looking for ways to diversify agriculture.  And if we weren't such prudes, industrial hemp would be an answer," says state Rep. Ed Fallon, co-sponsor of the most recent industrial hemp bill.  "It has definite industrial benefits."
     Though nine other representatives signed on to the bill, there was still not enough support to have it seriously considered.
     In addition to co-sponsoring the industrial hemp legislation, Fallon introduced the medical marijuana bill, just like he does every year.  Both, he says, are "deader than a doornail."
     "And it's a shame," he says.  "We'd be helping people who have legitimate needs that would benefit from the drug."
     Valko is hopeful that the laws will change someday and she'll be able to get the medicine that helps her without risking time in jail.  She says the pain from her disease has been so bad at times that she's considered killing herself just to bring it to an end.
     "If you can smoke a little pot to keep from blowing your brains out, so be it," she says.
     "Something has to be done.  People go out and drink alcohol and kill people, but I can't take my medicine.  It's got to be legalized.  This is ridiculous.
     "So many people smoke pot and complain about it being illegal.  But they won't stand up for their rights, and so nothing will change," she adds.  "Things will only change if enough people stand up and say this isn't right."
     Fallon agrees, saying the only way the state's cannabis laws will change is if enough people demand it.
     "Every year, we bring up medical marijuana and it gets killed.  And every year, someone brings up industrial hemp and it gets killed," he says.  "The Legislature is not a group of leaders, but followers.  These issues are going to take a lot more public awareness and comfort to get anywhere."
     And that, says Mitchell, is the purpose of the rally this weekend.
     "I hope to make a lot more people ask questions," he says.  "I want to know why it is illegal and I don't want to hear just 'it's against the law,' That's not good enough.  I want to know why.  There's a lot more people like me out there.
     "I wrote the governor, I can give him 1,000 reasons it should be legal, and I want him to give me just five reasons it shouldn't be.  If he can do that, I'll back off."

The rally this Saturday, May 5th, begins at noon on the Capitol steps and will move to Nollen Plaza around 4 p.m.  Several bands will be playing at Nollen Plaza until 10 p.m. as part of the rally.  For more information, call Terry Mitchell at (515) 789-4442