Drug Duel

Is medicinal marijuana the miracle pain-killing panacea offering relief to the sick and dying or does it open a Pandora’s box, unleashing other problems on society including widespread drug use, impaired driving and increased medical costs?

There is enough evidence on both sides to leave the issue confused. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana, but possession of marijuana is a federal offense and in some states, including Florida, it can land you in jail.

Many people swear by the drug’s pain relieving qualities, claiming it often works when nothing else will.

John P. McDonough, a University of North Florida professor and director of the Nurse Anesthetist Program, strongly supports the use of marijuana for those terminally and severely ill.

“I think in certain circumstances, the data is very clear that some people can benefit greatly from medical marijuana,” McDonough said.

He speaks from experience. His daughter-in-law was suffering from constant and severe nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy for cancer. Nothing seemed to work.

As a resident of Colorado, a state that allows medicinal marijuana, she agreed to try it at her husband’s suggestion and her doctor’s blessing.

“It did work. It worked like a charm,” McDonough said.

As a result, his son opened up a store that sells medicinal marijuana in Colorado. When he was securing marijuana for his wife’s condition, he felt most of the stores looked more like head shops than pharmacies. Medical marijuana can be smoked like tobacco, but it is also available in brownies, candies and lollipops, McDonough said.

“As an anesthetist, I understand pain management,” McDonough said.

Well-known attorney John Morgan of Morgan and Morgan, which has offices in Orlando and Jacksonville, has agreed to lead an effort to get the medical marijuana issue on the 2014 Florida ballot.

Organizers of his group, United for Care: People United for Medical Marijuana, must collect 683,149 valid signatures from Florida voters. The deadline for having signatures verified to get on the November ballot is Feb. 1, 2014. Constitutional amendments must receive 60 percent of the vote to be approved.

Morgan’s prestige, money and political contacts should help the effort, and he’s hired Ben Pollara, a veteran in Florida political affairs and advocacy, to manage the campaign.

Jon Mills, dean emeritus of the University of Florida Law School and an expert on constitutional law as well as being former speaker of the Florida House, is drafting new language “so that when we get to the state Supreme Court we have the best chance possible of standing up to any challenge,” Pollara said.

In an email, Pollara said he wanted to build a volunteer “Army of Angels,” before a re-launch of the petition drive in early June and hopes to collect nearly 1 million signatures.

On its Web page, United for Care states, “Studies have shown that many patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other debilitating illnesses find that marijuana provides relief from their illnesses.”

A recent poll taken by the organization shows that 70 percent of Floridians support the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida.

A national poll taken in March by the Pew Research Center finds that 52 percent of 1,501 adults polled said marijuana should be legal. Forty-five percent said it should be illegal. In addition, 72 percent said the federal government’s efforts against marijuana “cost more than they are worth.”

Morgan, who did not respond to a request by Folio Weekly for comment, told The Orlando Sentinel that he was motivated to try to legalize medicinal marijuana by his father’s suffering from emphysema and cancer prior to his death. Marijuana gave him some relief, Morgan said.

“It was a very painful death,” Morgan told the Sentinel. “My brother was able to get him some marijuana, which enabled him to be able to be settled down and have a serenity he had not enjoyed until that time. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Two Florida lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, also have filed bills seeking to legalize medicinal marijuana. They have named their bill for pro-pot activist Cathy Jordan, who uses the drug to mitigate the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In February, Manatee County sheriff’s deputies, wearing ski masks and with guns drawn, raided Jordan’s home, confiscating 23 marijuana plants, including two mature plants she uses to ease her pain. They made no arrests.

The bill, which has little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which ends May 13, would allow people with 24 different ailments, including “chronic pain” to possess 4 ounces of marijuana or grow eight plants at a time.

There are strong opponents of the issue, including University of Florida professor Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy institute at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Located in the Department of Psychiatry, the institute’s mission is to provide “policy-relevant material to lawmakers and the general public in the field of substance abuse and addiction.”

Sabet was a senior adviser to President Obama’s drug czar from 2009-2011. He said the Obama administration “determined a policy of marijuana legalization would pose too many risks to health and public safety.”

“Do the potential benefits of legalization outweigh the potential risks? After reviewing the evidence, the answer we came to was an emphatic ‘no.’”

“If marijuana were legal, and more people used it, we’d have more people driving high, growing marijuana in their own home, using underage and violating all sorts of new regulations,” Sabet wrote in an article in The Fix, a blog dealing with addiction and recovery.

Less than 2 percent of the people using medicinal marijuana have cancer, HIV and glaucoma, Sabet said. He likened those seeking medical marijuana to those who use pill mills to get pain medications. 

“A vast majority have a history of drug abuse,” he said.

Sabet said he could understand people wanting to alleviate their pain, but he doesn’t believe medical marijuana is the answer.

“People have a natural compassion for the sick and dying. A vast majority have a chronic illness, not a terminal illness,” he said.

Sabet favors a special compassionate program to provide experimental drugs and drugs approved in other countries to those dying and suffering, while safe and effective alternatives to medical marijuana are developed and approved in this country.

“The current system is rife with abuses,” he said.

A UF Policy Primer on Medical Marijuana produced by the Drug Policy Institute, said smoking marijuana is not an acceptable treatment for dealing with the pain of serious illness and that “very few people have cancer, HIV or other serious illnesses.”

Seattle attorney Hilary V. Bricken, who received her undergraduate degrees in philosophy, English and Spanish from Jacksonville University, before receiving her law degree from the University of Miami in 2010, works for the CannaLaw Group, which advices marijuana businesses how to operate under state laws in Washington.

Bricken, who has written several articles on the issue, expects Florida will eventually legalize marijuana. Washington and Colorado voters last year approved the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, even though the drug remains illegal under federal law.

“More and more states will begin to deal with the issue, or at least the decriminalization of cannabis, as public opinion continues favoring legalization on a larger scale,” Bricken said. “It is only a matter of time before Congress does something meaningful on the federal law regarding cannabis.”