For some chronically ill patients, pot succeeds where painkillers fail
For some chronically ill patients, pot succeeds where painkillers fail
Marijuana is keeping Clayton Holton alive. Holton, 23, has a rapidly worsening form of muscular dystrophy that has kept him wheelchair-bound for 16 years.
There is no treatment for his condition and he lives in "a great deal of pain," he said.
Doctors have tried all manner of legal painkillers to help him get through the day: OxyContin, Norco, Vicodin, Percocet. All had the side effects of vomiting, passing out, falling over and basically "making it more difficult to live my life independently."
With marijuana use, Holton said, after taking a dose, "I get hungry and eat a couple pounds of food." He also feels better than when using prescription pain relief.
"I'm in complete control, of my thoughts and actions," he said. "With prescriptions, it's a constant state of being drugged, out of control and feeling like you just want to lean against a wall all day."
He was first introduced to marijuana as a teen in high school. When Holton lived in a nursing home, "they had a big problem keeping my weight up" from his inability to keep food down while on OxyContin. After living in California and growing his own cannabis, he had gained 8 pounds in two months - a lifesaving amount for a man who, at 6 feet tall, had wasted away to 79 pounds from the disease.
Patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy are not usually expected to live past age 16. Turning 24 in March, Holton says "my doctors are extremely confused" as to what is keeping him alive.
Holton is not. He is currently up 15 pounds.
"I think it's ridiculous that I'm labeled a criminal by my government for using something that's keeping me alive," Holton stated.
Ellen McClung, age 53, of Gilford, used the exact same phrase. "If I hadn't discovered medical marijuana when I was 18, 19 years old," she said, "I would be dead. It saved my life."
McClung has multiple sclerosis, a painful muscular disease that wasn't even diagnosed until she was in her 30s. She uses medical marijuana to control spasticity in her legs and for pain. She tried Sativex, a pharmaceutical-alternative drug she obtained in Canada, but it did not control her pain.
Before her diagnosis was confirmed, McClung "thought (she) was going crazy" and wondered what, if anything, was wrong with her. Being introduced to marijuana in her late teens allowed her to relax and calm down, greatly improving her mental state.
Marijuana as medicine
New Hampshire is bordered by two states - Vermont and Maine - that have allowances for medical-marijuana usage. Some are working hard to make sure New Hampshire is next.
Matt Simon, of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, is heavily involved in getting a bill before the state legislature this year to have New Hampshire join the ranks of states that allow medical marijuana use.
The proposed bill, HB 648, "simply acknowledges the obvious fact that some seriously ill New Hampshire patients benefit from their medicinal use of marijuana," Simon observed. "There is no moral justification for continuing a policy that criminalizes patients for trying to relieve their suffering. (The law) would allow for the individual or an assigned caregiver to grow a specific amount of marijuana for personal medical use," he states. Speaking in January at a screening of the medical-marijuana documentary "Waiting to Inhale," Simon is to quick to mention that this would be "a tightly-crafted law," and would not allow for large-amount growing fields.
A similar bill, HB 774, was narrowly rejected (186-177) by the House in 2007, but Simon said he believes support will be much stronger this year.
"In the past two years, the consensus for allowing medical marijuana has grown. Michigan and New Mexico enacted medical marijuana laws, and now 25 percent of Americans live in medical marijuana states," Simon said in a press release about the bill. "In addition, the prestigious American College of Physicians issued a paper supporting marijuana's medical value. And, the new U.S. president has pledged to end the federal raids on medical marijuana providers, which had been a concern for many legislators."
The bill's prime sponsor is Rep. Evalyn Merrick, D-Lancaster. An initial hearing for the bill has not yet been scheduled.
Many are hoping 2009 is New Hampshire's year.
"I am cautiously optimistic about getting a bill through this year," said Rep. Joel Winters, D-Manchester, of District 17.
"New Hampshire has a history of doing the right thing and not caving in to fear of the feds - we stood our ground with Real ID cards," he pointed out.
Simon said a focus of the bill will protecting patients from arrest and incarceration, and giving law enforcement clear aids in discerning casual users from, for example, cancer patients. Registered ID cards would be one good tool, he said, both for the patient and the grower.
The bill Simon's organization will help to promote will be carefully worded so as to "prevent recreational users from trying to use medical marijuana laws as some sort of loophole. We simply want to get patients off the battlefield."
Most law enforcement officials aren't buying the medical marijuana argument.
>>The Pot Debate<<
Bill Quigley, the state coordinator for law enforcement's drug evaluation and classification program, has trained countless police officers to detect and define drug effects in users.
Marijuana does not need to be legalized because there is a perfectly acceptable legal version called Marinol. The synthetic lab-created drug mimics the effects of Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
However, any medical marijuana users who have tried Marinol will tell you the pills are much harder to tolerate, and that smoking real cannabis allows the patient to better control the dosage. The user can take one hit, wait for results, and repeat if necessary. Marinol doses aren't as easily adjusted by the individual and are often more debilitating.
From remedy to contraband
The medical benefits of marijuana have been long and vehemently debated in medical journals and halls of justice, ever since cannabis became an illegal substance in the 1930s. Before that, it - along with cocaine, morphine and other now-taboo drugs - could be found in tinctures, syrups and all manner of compounds aimed to cure what ailed you.
Cannabis has been used since ancient times as an herbal remedy. But as suddenly as it was taken off the legal market, its legitimacy as a medicine was quickly refuted, and those who asserted otherwise were met with derision and sometimes outright hostility.
Doctors who dared to prescribe, or even suggest, marijuana to their patients as an alternative source of relief for their symptoms were often threatened with criminal charges. Dr. Marcus Conant of San Francisco was the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the federal government in 2002, claiming doctors' rights of free speech were being trampled upon. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the government couldn't punish physicians for voicing their professional opinions, including recommendation of medical marijuana.
Robert Randall, dubbed "patient zero," was the first person to win the legal right to use marijuana medically in this country. A glaucoma patient, he successfully argued in federal court in 1975 that "any sane person would break the law to save their eyesight." His legal victory led to the creation of the Investigational New Drug Program, in which several patients were supplied with marijuana legally on a regular basis.
Still, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug.
>>ON THE NET<<
"Schedule I drugs have a high tendency for abuse and have no accepted medical use," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. This schedule includes drugs such as marijuana, heroin, ecstasy and LSD. Interestingly, "Schedule II drugs have a high tendency for abuse, (but) may have an accepted medical use and . . . includes examples such as cocaine, opium, morphine and methamphetamines."
If the effort to pass HB 648 succeeds, New Hampshire would become the 14th state since 1996 to pass legislation protecting medical marijuana patients, joining Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Simon hopes New Hampshire turns the corner sooner rather than later, adding "There are people now, patients now, that don't have years to wait."
This article appears in the January 30 2009 issue of New Hampshire Business Review