Pot, pain and politics

Apr 7, 2004 at 12:00 am

Tim Beck challenges anyone to explain “how, exactly, a cancer patient using marijuana is a danger to the republic, a danger to civilization in the City of Detroit.”

Beck chairs the Detroit Coalition for Compassionate Care (DCCC), the organization sponsoring the Detroit Medical Marijuana Initiative. Detroit voters will decide the initiative’s fate in August.

If passed, the initiative would amend the City Code to allow residents with letters from their doctors to possess and use marijuana. The initiative does not address the issues of marijuana production, distribution or methods of ingestion.

It took fewer than five weeks in 2003 for paid workers and volunteers to collect 9,489 signatures, according to Beck. The city clerk validated 7,779 of the signatures in November; 6,141 valid signatures were required. The DCCC collected enough signatures in 2001 to put the initiative on the ballot, but that petition was thrown out due to technicalities.

The Detroit Medical Marijuana Proposal Web site (mmdetroit.org) states that marijuana has a history of safe use around the world, with no cases of fatal overdose. It purports that marijuana is useful in the treatment of conditions such as chemotherapy-related nausea, migraine headaches and intraocular pressure associated with glaucoma.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit A-Mark Foundation runs medicalmarijuanaprocon.org, a Web site devoted to discussion of medical marijuana. The site lists several methods of medical marijuana ingestion: smoking; vaporization, extraction of the plant’s oil for consumption; creation of an alcohol-based tincture; simmering in butter or vegetable oil to create a THC-rich base suitable for cooking.

Opponents of the Detroit initiative address no method of ingestion besides smoking. They focus on the negative aspects of inhalation and say the FDA-approved drug Marinol is the only viable method of medical marijuana ingestion.

Marinol, the pill containing a synthetic form of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), is on the market, but its side effect “high” isn’t as easy to control as with conventional marijuana, according to mmdetroit.org. Patients with nausea have also had trouble swallowing the pill as opposed to smoking marijuana, the site claims, adding that Marinol is expensive: about $17.25 per 10 mg capsule. With at least 200,000 uninsured city residents, Beck argues that pot is a better option.

The mmdetroit.org site also says supporters of the initiative include such prominent Democrats as U.S. Reps. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick and John Conyers, former U.S. Rep. David Bonior, and Detroit City Councilwomen Maryann Mahaffey and JoAnn Watson. Watson also serves on the DCCC steering committee along with state Sen. Hansen Clarke. Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General, also recently endorsed the initiative and will join the steering committee, Beck says.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free Detroit (PDFD) has produced a flyer titled Medical Marijuana is Bad for Detroit. Its authors list the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (the son of initiative backer Cheeks-Kilpatrick) as foes of the initiative.

The authors describe the initiative as an “attempt by drug legalizers to deceive and exploit the suffering of sick people,” ignoring “substantial evidence that smoked marijuana is harmful and offers no medical benefit to suffering patients.”

While touting the virtues of Marinol, the literature also describes the medical marijuana initiative as deceptive: “Marijuana is an intoxicant; therefore it is not surprising that sincere people will report relief of their symptoms when they smoke it. Heroin also makes people feel better, but no one should suggest using heroin to treat a sick person. There are effective methods of pain relief, which are not dangerous to the patient.”

Dr. Calvin Trent, co-chair of PDFD and director of Substance Abuse, Prevention, Treatment and Recovery for the Detroit Health Department, surprisingly acknowledged the benefits of medical marijuana on the local television show “City Highlights” on March 17. Trent said his organization recognized that there are people who would benefit medically from marijuana but that PDFD prefers marijuana in the form of a pill, instead of being smoked, “because we’re against smoking.”

Trent added that people already have medical marijuana access in Detroit through clinical trials. “It’s not an issue of medical marijuana, because medical marijuana is already available,” he said.

Beck, who appeared on the same program, but did not debate Trent, questioned Trent’s claims about the existence of clinical trials in Detroit and called his comments “pure, unadulterated bullshit.”

In a phone interview, Trent reiterates his statements and says PDFD is concerned about “massive abuse” of the law if the initiative were to pass. Trent fears that forged doctor’s notes would be difficult to control and that the growth of marijuana for purported medical use would be hard to regulate. Asked for specific information about the clinical trials in Detroit, Trent referred Metro Times to James G. Tillman, diversion program manager for the Detroit office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, who says, “I am not aware of any studies that are ongoing, at least in the City of Detroit at this time, using smoked marijuana. The marijuana that is available is the THC that is in the Marinol capsules, and that’s the only one that is approved.”

An officer and an advocate

Dan Solano is a former Marine and a retired Detroit police officer. While on duty in 1991, he was crushed between two cars. The accident left him with nerve damage, herniated disks in his back and neck, and severe stomach problems. He took drugs such as Demerol to manage the pain, but switched to marijuana.

“Marijuana does not leave me with a drug hangover like the pharmaceuticals,” says Solano.

He says marijuana lets him function normally, and that people who use marijuana medically are not looking to get high.

“Because we are using it to relieve a medical condition, the high is not our goal, we only ingest what we need,” Solano says.

Solano says marijuana arrests are diverting police resources that could be better used.

“It takes three to five hours of two officers being off the street for a marijuana arrest,” he says. “Who’s watching for the rapist, armed robber, murderer — folks we truly want off the streets?”

He and a fellow retired officer started Police Officers for Drug Law Reform in 1999, with the goal of keeping medical marijuana patients out of jail and court.

Solano says he’s talked to Detroit officers and found that most had no problem allowing “sick people access to their medication.” Solano says officers dislike the “idea of taking a sick and disabled person to jail for a marijuana violation.”

But Detroit police officials say officer sentiments are moot. Officer Derek Jones of the department’s Public Information Office says, “Marijuana is illegal in the State of Michigan, and we are here to enforce the law. If there’s a change in the law, then at that point it will have to be evaluated.”

Even if the initiative becomes law, residents who possess marijuana for medical purposes would not be protected from arrest by county, state or federal officials. Sergeant Matt Bolger, government liaison for the Michigan State Police, says, “The department of state police is not going to take a position on the voter initiative per se. However, troopers in the City of Detroit would enforce the state law, not the ordinance.” Representatives of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office were contacted for comment, but phone calls were not returned before press time.

The DEA’s Tillman says the DEA would determine its course of action should the initiative pass.

Beck notes that it is likewise illegal to possess a hypodermic needle without a prescription under state and federal law, but not under Detroit city ordinance, which exempts participants in city-sponsored needle exchange programs. Beck sees his initiative as creating a similar exemption for medical marijuana users.

Madison, Wis., has had a medical marijuana ordinance on its books since 1977. A person may possess up to 112 grams of marijuana in a private place with impunity. A person possessing it in public may be fined, unless he or she has proof of medical need. Gary Storck, director of the Drug Policy Forum of Wisconsin, says patients with letters from doctors have historically purchased their marijuana off the streets.

“It’s a shame that patients have to go out and buy it on the black market,” he says, citing price, quality and safety issues.

He says Madison police use discretion when arresting marijuana buyers. “We count on the city authorities to keep in mind that it could be medical,” he says. “Generally, the city has been pretty good at sticking to that.”

In Ann Arbor, where marijuana possession is punishable by civil, not criminal, penalties, activists are circulating a petition to reduce penalties even further. Rich Birkett co-authored the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Initiative, which proposes a new amendment to the city charter that would waive all punishment for medical marijuana users who have a valid doctor recommendation. Birkett says the petitioners must collect about 4,200 signatures by May to get the initiative on the November general election ballot.

Joanna Galuszka is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]