Compassionate cannabis
Medical marijuana bill reintroduced for 2012

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Erin Silbaugh went home to Lodi after multiple tours in Iraq, but he couldn't find peace.

Silbaugh, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran, returned suffering from post-traumatic stress, a sometimes debilitating anxiety disorder affecting as many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The Veterans Administration answers PTSD with prescriptions for antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, treatments that research indicates may be no more effective than placebos.

But in New Mexico and Delaware, the pains and symptoms associated with PTSD are being treated successfully with medical marijuana. In New Mexico, about a third of the nearly 5,000 patients with medical marijuana prescriptions are dealing with PTSD.

So Silbaugh now finds himself in another fight – this one for the legalization of medical pot in Wisconsin.

In November 2011, he joined state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, to announce the reintroduction of the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act for the 2012 legislative season.

Marijuana helps, Silbaugh said. But, he added, "I'm forced to hide within my own country to be able to use medicine that helps me."

Pocan and Erpenbach filed a similar bill in 2009 that was heard by a joint Assembly-Senate health committee but died when the session ended in April 2010.

Opponents of the 2009 bill included the Wisconsin Medical Society and Wisconsin Narcotics Officers Association, as well as Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. In written testimony, Van Hollen said the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Ac would violate federal drug laws and complicate prosecution of state cases.

JRMMA would allow a chronically ill patient with a doctor's recommendation to possess up to 12 plants and three ounces of medicinal marijuana. The measure also would create a system of regulated access to marijuana – through state-licensed, nonprofit distribution centers. If it passes, patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and other diseases will not have to use the criminal market to obtain their medicine.

To regulate the program, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services would create a registry and issue medical marijuana ID cards.

Currently, a person convicted of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana can be sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine in Wisconsin.

"Patients with a debilitating medical condition should not live in fear of being prosecuted for using marijuana to ease their pain or aid their healing," Erpenbach said. "People deserve compassionate legal treatment prescribed by their doctor."

A number of studies show pot can be a painkiller and an effective treatment for some disorders and diseases. The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California-San Diego, for example, has completed five studies on medical marijuana. Four of them demonstrated that cannabis has analgesic effects in pain caused by injury, such as spinal cord injury, or diseases of the nervous system, including complications from AIDS. The studies showed that medical marijuana may provide a treatment option for patients who do not respond or respond inadequately to currently available therapies.

A fifth study found medical marijuana reduces Multiple Sclerosis muscle spasticity, "at least in the short term, beyond the benefit available from usual medical care."

"Plenty of evidence already exists proving the relative safety and efficacy of marijuana when used to treat a variety of ailments, and more studies on the potential benefits of marijuana treatments are being released regularly," said Robert Capecchi, legislative analyst for the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. 

Capecchi was among the more than 100 witnesses who testified at the 2009 hearing in Madison in favor of medical marijuana.

So was Jacki Rickert, the Mondovi woman for whom the bill is named.

Rickert lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of heritable connective tissue disorders characterized by articular joint hypermobility, skin extensibility and tissue fragility. People with EDS can have frequent joint dislocations, skin that easily tears and bruises, wounds that won't heal and debilitating musculoskeletal pain.

When she testified in 2009, Rickert recalled her doctor telling her, "You will die," if she could not gain weight. She weighed about 68 pounds at the time, and there was one medicine that could help – marijuana.

"We've never wanted to break the law, but sometimes you have to," she testified.

Rickert had planned to join Pocan and Erpenbach for the Capitol press conference on the reintroduction of JRMMA, but for medical reasons she could not attend.

"JRMMA is about real people with real needs," she said, adding that passage of the bill is urgent. People, she said, need medical marijuana "now, not next time. How many people are not going to have a next time? Maybe next time I won't be around. How many friends have I lost? How many times have I said you will know someone who needs medical cannabis? Things really need to be done to make it a reality. I've run out of ways to make sense of the senseless. We do know that it does help."

Rickert's friends and supporters have said they want JRMMA enacted to help ease her pain, not in her memory.

Is 2012 the year?

By late December, JRMMA had 15 co-sponsors in the Assembly and two in the Senate – Erpenbach and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

And the Marijuana Policy Project is ready to help lobby and gather testimony to increase support among lawmakers, said spokesman Morgan Fox. 

Still to come in the process is scheduling reviews in committees, all of which are chaired by Republicans in a state government headed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

In the Senate, one of the two health committees where the bill might be assigned is chaired by Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who during the 2009 hearing on JRMMA called it "nothing more than a ruse for you to move forward for full legalization of marijuana."

Pocan recognized the Capitol might not be fertile territory to grow support for JRMMA in 2012. He cited another obstacle – a short legislative calendar that ends in March.

"But it's important to have a hearing and get people to come out and talk about it, because we find there's so much more support in this state than opposition," Pocan said.

"Every time we put it out there, we gain additional support," he added.

And JRMMA, which Pocan said could become model legislation for other states, already has popular appeal.

In Wisconsin in 2010, non-binding referendums for medical marijuana passed in Dane County and River Falls with overwhelming support.

Also, statewide polls put support for medical marijuana at 75-80 percent. In November 2010, an estimated 3,200 people marched on the Capitol in support of medical pot.

At the national level, polls show similar support for legalizing medical marijuana. A CBS News poll in November 2011 found 77 percent of Americans support it.

"This is an issue where people are clearly way ahead of the policy makers," said Pocan, who is openly gay. "The Wisconsin Legislature needs to catch up with the public and pass this bill, because making medical marijuana legal is the right and compassionate thing to do for patients in pain."

Wisconsin, which has a long history of enacting progressive policies, lags behind 16 other states and the District of Columbia on the issue, according to compassionate cannabis campaigners. In some states, voter-approved ballot measures created access, while passage of legislation similar to JRMMA created access in others.

"The vast majority of Americans support allowing sick people to use marijuana to treat their illnesses, and more and more states are taking steps that reflect that," MPP's Capecchi said.

This year, in addition to lawmakers in Wisconsin, legislators in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania may take up medical marijuana bills.

MPP will be involved in lobbying for legislation in the other states, as well as continuing to promote legislation that would remove the federal prohibition against marijuana.

In 2011, a coalition of progressive lawmakers introduced four bills to reform federal marijuana laws, including the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act sponsored by U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., who are both openly gay, and Pete Stark, D-Calif.

The measure would make individuals and entities immune to federal prosecution when acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. The bill also would direct the White House to initiate the process of rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act so that it is placed in a schedule other than Schedule I. 

The lawmakers argue that marijuana should not be in the same class as heroin, PCP and LCD, which are labeled as dangerous drugs with no medical use.

"The time has come for the federal government to stop preempting states' medical marijuana laws," Frank said. "For the federal government to come in and supersede state law is a real mistake for those in pain for whom nothing else seems to work."

Frank and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, also introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, which would end marijuana prohibition at the federal level and allow states to decide whether to prohibit marijuana, allow use for medical purposes or decriminalize possession altogether.

Reform at the federal level would cease the federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Washington.

Reform at the federal level also would make it easier for Wisconsin to make and enforce its own policy, Fox said.

And the best policy is to legalize medical marijuana, he added. "There is absolutely no reason that people should be treated like criminals for trying to treat their conditions … with what can be a far safer method than currently available pharmaceutical drugs," Fox said. 

On the books

The District of Columbia and 16 states – Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – provide access to medical marijuana for patients suffering certain illnesses.

On the Web

For more information about the campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin, go to http://www.mpp.org/states/wisconsin/.

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