DOWNTOWN
July 8, 1992


GOOD/BAD MEDICINE
Medical Marijuana Boon For AIDS Patients?
Government Accused Of Medical Terrorism

By Paul DeRienzo

Dennis Peron is an unlikely prophet but he finds himself in the forefront of one of this country’s most divisive medical controversies. Early last year Peron’s home in the Castro Street section of San Francisco was the scene of a violent police raid. The police were looking for drugs but what they found, besides four ounces of marijuana, was Peron’s long time companion, Jonathan West who was Suffering from AIDS. Peron was arrested and charged with intent to sell marijuana.

Peron angrily describes how the police knocked West to the ground to handcuff him as they searched the house vainly for something to justify the assault. While the police found nothing else Peron says the shock of the raid contributed to his companion’s death from AIDS just several weeks later. But not until after lie had testified in defense of Peron.

West’s full blown AIDS had manifested itself as cancer and several other rare diseases and lie testified in Court that marijuana alleviated the debilitating side effects of the myriad drugs lie was forced to take. Speaking with Peter Gorman in High Times magazine Peron said Jonathan West was "my brother, my best friend. I wanted to just forget everything but I couldn’t. His will, his Courage, his memory Wouldn’t let me."

Peron in his sorrow and outrage penned the words of what would become Proposition P on the San Francisco ballot. The proposition asked simply "Shall it be the policy of the People of San Francisco to recommend that the State of California and the California Medical Association restore hemp medical preparations to the list of available medicines?"

Peron was no stranger to the world of popular referendums. In 1972 he succeeded in getting a marijuana proposition on the statewide ballot that garnered 36 percent of the vote. In 1978 he tried again in San Francisco with a proposition W, winning 5 percent of the vote. Peron’s most recent attempt made it on the ballot on Oct. 7, 1991 where it was approved by an astounding 80 percent of the voters.

While these propositions are not legally binding they do effect decisions on how marijuana related crimes will be tried since jury pools in California are taken from the voter registration lists. Prosecutors in San Francisco are now on notice that they will have a difficult time trying cases involving marijuana.

Marijuana Miracle Drug?

The United States government has recognized the potential value of marijuana as a medicine since the Food and Drug Administration began a compassionate use testing program in 19-8 that allowed marijuana to he distributed to select patients. Because marijuana is a Schedule I drug, similar to heroin, it cannot legally be used for any purpose including medical ones. Even cocaine and morphine, which are Schedule 11 drugs, are recognized as having medical uses.

According to the Journal of tbe American Medical Association anecdotal evidence suggests that m4rijuana "may slow and even reverse weight loss in patients with human immunodeficiency virus related (AIDS) wasting syndrome, for which there is no approved therapy." The JAMA report says marijuana works through its ability to stimulate the appetites of users. For years marijuana has been s own to decrease ocular pressure for people suffering from the eye disease glaucoma, which can lead to blindness, and marijuana is known to ease the nausea that comes with cancer chemotherapy.

But shortly after the medical marijuana victory at the polls in San Francisco the U.S. Public Health Service, which administered the compassionate use program for marijuana, unilaterally stopped accepting new applications. The PHS decision does not affect the 15 people who are currently allowed to use marijuana for glaucoma, AIDS, and nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy.

PHS acknowledges the timing of their action was influenced by a deluge of applications from patients with AIDS. People with AIDS had figured out, with g the hell) of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics in Washington DC, how to Cut the complicated application procedure which could take 50 hours to process an FDA approved form that could be filled out in less than an hour.

The head of the Public Health Service, Dr. James Mason defends PHS because he says giving marijuana out as a medicine was sending a "bad signal" by creating the "perception that this stuff can’t be so bad. "

In response, Robert Randall, president of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics says, "Mason seems to be more interested in ideological signals than in the welfare of desperately ill people."

A fact sheet by the National Cancer Institute states that scientists there "believe marijuana-related compounds probably are not as effective" as other drugs for the control of nausea after chemotherapy.

However, the factsheet also says that marijuana "can be useful" when other drugs such as injections of Zofran a commonly used anti-emetic (anti vomiting) drug cannot be used.

However recent studies show that cancer specialists want the right to prescribe marijuana. A Harvard study recently published by the Journal Of Clinical Oncology, (cancer research) reports that 441 percent of the nation’s oncologists responding to the study have advised cancer patients to break the law to obtain the marijuana they medically need. Another 70 percent told Harvard researchers that they Would prescribe marijuana if it were legally available.

Even more interesting is the Harvard study’s finding that most cancer specialists have found that marijuana is More effective in treating nausea when smoked than the FDA promoted synthetic marijuana substitute, marketed under the brand name Marinol. Cost is also a factor because Marinol costs $8 a pill while marijuana costs about a penny a dose.

The FDA argues that when marijuana is smoked the 400 compounds found in its smoke my cause side effects detrimental to immune system compromised patients. especially those suffering from AIDS related lung diseases. Opponents of legalizing marijuana for medical uses admit Marinol is less efficient in delivering therapeutic doses of marijuana but they say the pills are easier to control and that the rapid onset of the marijuana high, referred to as-altered mental status," may disorient the patient.

It’s an argument that has marijuana therapy advocate Mike Harrington of ACT-UP in New York City fuming. "It’s clear the government’s war on drugs is taking precedence over any kind of medical rationality. " Harrington adds that the argument that side effects outweigh benefits "is as spurious for this indication as it is for withholding morphine from people suffering extreme pain. The evidence is not there."

Harrington says access is being denied to a drug that "could real improve the quality of lives, and if it can enable them to eat more, it may even extend their lives."

Dr. John P. Morgan, associate professor of pharmacology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and author of the latest Merck Manual’s chapter on marijuana, concedes that lung damage from excessive use of marijuana is possible. But he adds he's never seen a convincing report of lung cancer of emphysema in marijuana smokers who did not also smoke tobacco.

Morgan adds that the doses used to treat diseases arc probably not great enough to make the risk significant. "Criminalization is insane," say’s Morgan. I do not advocate marijuana use, but I am absolutely convinced this is a valuable therapeutic agent which cannot be studied now because of the current political climate,"

There are some cracks in the government’s stonewalling of medical marijuana. In 1988 Drug Enforcement-Agency Administrative Judge Francis L Young wrote that marijuana "has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of very ill people. Young called for marijuana to be moved from Schedule I to Schedule 11 status to allow its prescription by doctors along with drugs like morphine that have both medical use and high potential, for abuse. However, the DEA overruled Judge Young and rules that marijuana has no medical uses.

Last Fall Ingrid Kolb, acting deputy director of the Office of Demand Reduction who for Drug Czar Bob Martinez rote a letter calling attempts to frustrate access to marijuana by cancer patients "medical terrorism." Kolb replaced Dr. Herbert Kleeber, a conservative holdover from the czardom of Bill Bennett who showed little compassion for either drug addicts or cancer patients.

Dennis Peron is disgusted by the government’s position. He says "it’s the cynical nature of our government that they continue to use sick people as pawns in their no-win war on drugs." Peron says he’s already given away more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana to sick people and he says he plans to give away much more. "One day we’ll look back at this time as a bad time in Our history, I know that we’ll be vindicated. That’s why we keep fighting.

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