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Lost in Cyberspace

Pot Online

© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz

Potheads are euphoric over a new federal study that finds marijuana may have medical benefits. The "just say no" crowd and mainstream media have mostly ignored the report, but in cyberspace you can read all about it and the growing movement to reform marijuana laws.

If you think authorities no longer bother to arrest pot smokers, much less send them to prison, think again. According to a recent PBS "Frontlines" documentary, "Busted: America's War on Marijuana" <>, a quarter of the federal government's $10-billion-a-year war on drugs is used to enforce marijuana laws, and 17 percent of inmates in America's overcrowded prisons are there for marijuana offenses, many serving mandatory federal sentences, doing more time than rapists and murderers. Unlike many violent offenders, pot growers and sellers are subject to million dollar fines and having their homes, cars and other possessions seized, and their spouses are often coerced into testifying against them lest they also be imprisoned and their children placed in foster care.

Given that cannabis is less dangerous than nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and heroin (more on that federal study in a moment), one might ask, why the draconian measures? The answer, suggests "Frontlines," is that marijuana is less an issue of public health than politics and culture. That "reefer madness" began as a backlash against Mexican immigration in the 1930s, and in the 1960s pot became a victim of the culture wars because it happened to be the drug of choice for long-haired hippies and anti-war civil rights protesters.

Over the years, proponents of "decriminalizing" pot have tried various strategies, but the first to get any traction seems to be medical marijuana. And no wonder. Whereas earlier tactics such as smoke-ins evoked about as much sympathy as a gay pride parade, even straights can fathom the argument that if marijuana helps terminally ill patients withstand cancer chemotherapy or AIDS cocktails, why not let them have it -- heck, they're going to die anyway.

"The Action Class for Freedom of Therapeutic Cannabis" <> is the Web site for a class action lawsuit filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, in which 165 people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other ailments have sued the government to let them participate in a now-frozen federal program to provide marijuana to critically ill patients on a "compassionate use" basis. Also, voters in six states have passed medical marijuana initiatives, with California's Proposition 215 being the first in 1996.

Anti-drug groups and federal authorities oppose such efforts, saying their real purpose is backdoor legalization of pot. Of course they are right, else why would the measures be endorsed by such bastions of public health policy as "High Times" magazine and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws?

The principal author of California's Prop. 215 is "potlitical" gadfly Dennis Peron, who heads Californians for Compassionate Care <>. The proposition ostensibly legalized possession or cultivation of pot for patients who can get a doctor's prescription, and a network of "cannabis clubs" sprang up in the state where pot is "donated" to "patients" in exchange for financial donations.

However, California's State Assembly has yet to turn Prop 215 into law, and the busts continue. The founder of an Orange County medical marijuana co-op was recently sentenced to six years in prison, and in Los Angeles, AIDS sufferer Peter McWilliams and several others face charges of growing more than 4,000 plants in a rented Bel-Air mansion, allegedly for sale to cannabis clubs statewide. Recently a federal judge denied McWilliams' plea to be allowed to smoke pot while awaiting trial in September. McWilliams claims marijuana helps him tolerate the drugs he takes to control AIDS, and that since having his pot taken away, he has gotten sicker; that, in effect, the judge's ruling is a death sentence.

The biggest of the cannabis clubs was Peron's Market Street Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, which was providing pot to 9,000 clients. When city officials would not close the operation, it was raided by the U.S. Justice Department and former California Attorney General Dan Lungren. Peron retaliated by running against Lungren in the 1998 Republican primary for governor, and now he has taken a new tact, providing living plants to patients rather than processed pot.  Peron has moved to a 20-acre farm in Northern California, where he raises marijuana plants until they are ready to flower, then gives or sells them at cost to his former cannabis club clients, who grow them the rest of the way.

California's new attorney general, Democrat Bill Lockyer, admits he voted for Prop 215 and says state police will no longer raid medical marijuana clubs. But Peron has been unable to find lawmakers willing to sponsor bills implementing Prop 215 or reclassifying marijuana from a dangerous to a prescribable drug if the federal government does so (Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is sponsoring such a bill in Congress). As close as any California politician has come is state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, who has introduced a bill for the state to sponsor a study on the medical efficacy of marijuana.

Which brings us to the new federal study by the Institute of Medicine, which can be found hidden away at the Web site of the National Academy of Sciences <>. The report says marijuana is "potentially effective in treating pain, nausea, the anorexia of AIDS wasting, and other symptoms," but rather than endorsing medical marijuana, it calls for yet another study.

According to the report, few people develop a dependence on pot, and even for them, withdrawal is "mild and short-lived." The drug's primary side effect is reported to be "euphoria," and as for pot being a "gateway" leading to harder drugs, the study notes "most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana." The study concludes that marijuana's primary risk has less to do with the drug than the tars released into the lungs when it is smoked. Even though few people smoke anywhere near the equivalent of a pack of marijuana cigarettes a day, researchers used the theoretical threat of lung cancer to recommend limiting medical marijuana to "short-term use among patients who are most likely to benefit from treatment."

The report has received little attention at the Web sites of such anti-drug organizations as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) <> and Partnership for a Drug-Free America <>, which calls itself "the most complete and accurate compilation of information about drugs on the Web." The White House Office of National Drug Policy <>, which commissioned the study, pronounced itself "delighted that science is the basis of the discussion of this issue," and not much more.

Pro-pot groups have been more vocal. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws <> welcomed the study, but criticized Institute of Medicine researchers for not going further. "It is nothing less than an act of political cowardliness for the IOM to admit that inhaled marijuana benefits some patients, while at the same time recommending to those patients that their only alternative is to suffer," said NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. "Clearly, the time has come for this Administration to amend federal law to allow seriously ill patients immediate legal access to medical marijuana."

"High Times" magazine <> asserts the study "refutes the DEA's long-held claims that marijuana is a dangerous drug of abuse with no medical value." And the Marijuana Policy Project <>, a nonprofit organization lobbying for federal marijuana law reform, headlined its press release, "Drug Czar Proven Wrong: Marijuana's Medical Benefits Supported by Scientific Evidence." One more pro-pot Web site is "Marijuananews" <>, edited by former NORML National Director Richard Cowan. The site is an online newsletter covering medical marijuana and other "cannabis controversies," and includes press releases and media reports accompanied by Cowan's editorial comments.

Despite the latest study, don't hold your breath expecting marijuana to become legal any time soon. Like the cold war, politicians have found the drug war to be a potent bogey man, and woe be the candidate who is "soft on drugs." But potheads of all ages may find solace in "Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook" <>, a humorous book and Web site authored by Evan Keliher, who claims he has been treating his glaucoma with pot for 30 years. Keliher says "marijuana is essentially harmless when used by responsible adults," and recommends that senior citizens use it to avoid the hazards of growing old. "They'll still grow old," he says, "but they won't care."

copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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