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At Issue: Medical marijuana

Published (2/20/2009)
By Nick Busse
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K.K. Forss, from left, Joni Whiting and Dr. George Wagoner testify before the House Health Care and Human Services Policy and Oversight  Committee Feb. 18 in support of a bill legalizing medical marijuana. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)For Joni Whiting, the decision to let her daughter, Stephanie, use medical marijuana wasn’t an easy one. A proud Vietnam veteran and mother of four, Whiting said allowing drugs in her house under any circumstances had been unthinkable — right up until almost the end.

In fact, Whiting resisted the notion of medical marijuana even after doctors had given Stephanie just six months to live — even after her skin cancer had ravaged her face and left Stephanie suffering from constant and uncontrollable pain, despite the dozens upon dozens of powerful painkillers she took every day. Finally, Whiting’s other adult children took Stephanie out of her home and let her use marijuana. When Stephanie returned three days later, she told Whiting that the drug had not only alleviated much of the pain but also allowed her to eat food without her usual vomiting. Whiting changed her mind about marijuana.

“My only regret is not allowing her to use marijuana in my home throughout her illness,” she said.

According to Whiting, the illegally obtained marijuana allowed her daughter to live out the last three months of her life in considerably less agony than what she had experienced without the drug. Whiting now believes the state’s prohibition on medical marijuana needs to be lifted.

“I am no longer willing to support making criminals out of the sick and dying,” she said.

On Feb. 18, Whiting was one of several witnesses to testify in favor of a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for Minnesotans suffering from certain debilitating conditions.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virgina), HF292 would regulate the use of medical marijuana by setting limits for allowable amounts, requiring patients and caregivers to possess registry identification cards, and specifying penalties for violations. The House Health Care and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee approved the bill on a 9-6 party-line vote.

As with medical marijuana initiatives in the past, Rukavina’s bill has people taking up positions along familiar battle lines. Proponents say medical marijuana will provide desperately needed relief to people for whom other treatments do not work; critics argue medical marijuana opens the door to increased drug abuse and gives the false impression that the drug is less dangerous than it is.

“This bill will send the wrong message to impressionable young people that there’s nothing wrong with marijuana because now it’s a medicine,” said James Hafiz, a recovering drug addict who said marijuana served as his “gateway drug” to harder substances.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, said the bill would enable exactly that kind of drug abuse by allowing people with problems like a “bad knee” or “tennis elbow” to obtain medical marijuana under the pretense of “debilitating conditions.”

“I believe this bill will open up a can of worms, and I urge you to reject it,” Prichard said.

Others doubt the basic premise that marijuana can be used legitimately as a medicine.

Deborah Mosby, an assistant professor of human services at Metropolitan State University, said that in some of the 13 states where medical marijuana is legal, the drug has been prescribed for conditions such as anxiety, which she said could actually be exacerbated by using marijuana.

Mosby said smoking marijuana can impair the body’s immune system and make people more susceptible to diseases. While she would not “take a joint out of the hand of somebody who’s dying,” she said many potential medical marijuana users might be better off without it.

Supporters of medical marijuana, however, say that’s a decision best left to doctors. George Wagoner, a physician whose wife died of cancer, said medical marijuana allowed her to eat food and bypass the nausea associated with her chemotherapy treatments — something that greatly improved the quality of her life before she died. He said doctors should have the right to prescribe patients whatever treatment their conditions require.

“Patients should be able to choose a medication that works best for them … and that’s precisely what this bill will allow.”

The bill was sent to the House Civil Justice Committee. A companion, SF97, sponsored by Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), was approved Feb. 11 by the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee, and now awaits action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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