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Bad medicine? 

Local man tangles with American Cancer Society, police in his campaign to promote medical marijuana

click to enlarge Matt Schnur had been growing these plants at his home, - but gave them away when probation officers said theyd - be coming by for oversight. - MATT SCHNUR
  • Matt Schnur
  • Matt Schnur had been growing these plants at his home, but gave them away when probation officers said theyd be coming by for oversight.

American Cancer Society officials didn't waste any time removing medical marijuana activist Matthew Schnur from their local event in August.

First, Schnur says, a volunteer scolded him, calling his efforts insulting to cancer patients. Then a director had police escort him out of the Relay for Life gathering.

Schnur is used to the rejection. Though he and others are working to prove marijuana is medicine, the medical community hasn't warmed to the idea.

"I just think because of the recreational use, people have such a distortion about the use of this as medicine," Schnur says. "That's a shame for the people who need it."

A representative of the local American Cancer Society chapter says no advertisers or lobbyists are allowed at the event; Schnur maintains he couldn't have known that before coming, since he says he never received replies from e-mails he sent to the chapter.

David Sampson, national spokesman for the American Cancer Society, says his organization does not condone the use of marijuana, but does support more research. The society takes its viewpoint from a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

"Obviously, if there were major breakthroughs in this area, they would likely be published in a major medical journal, and we wouldn't be the only ones to respond to that," he says.

For Schnur, who's researching the effects of pot while earning his master's degree at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, dealing with such skepticism is a side-effect of working with America's most controversial drug.

The proof

In Colorado, a 2000 amendment made medical marijuana use legal for patients registered with and approved by the state. Schnur smokes to relieve symptoms of the diabetes with which he was diagnosed as a child, as well as the neuropathy and gastroparesis he developed later. He says he was days away from getting that approval last year when he was arrested and jailed for possession and cultivation of marijuana.

He pleaded guilty and was originally given supervised community service. However, when a diabetic seizure and a swollen foot kept him from the work, Schnur says, he ended up in jail for 16 days. There he suffered more seizures a rarity for him since he began using pot.

Even with all of those troubles, though, Schnur says his reception in the scientific community still frustrates him most.

He says he's in the process of posting more than 7,000 peer-reviewed medical marijuana studies (including his own) on his Web site, cannabistherapeutics.net. He also works with Americans for Safe Access, a national pro-medical marijuana group, to spread the word about pot's benefits to local patients.

Schnur isn't the only one who thinks marijuana is good medicine. At UCCS, he works with professor Robert Melamede, a nationally known marijuana advocate.

"Cannabis in experimental studies in the laboratory kills the whole variety of cancer cells, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, glioma, leukemia, lymphoma, rectal cancer," Melamede says. "In addition, they relieve pain, they promote sleeping, they promote appetite and they're antidepressants. Well, doesn't that sound like exactly what a cancer patient would need?

"They also turn off the genes that are involved in the metastasis of cancers. You know, they've recently been shown to kill lung cancer. So you would think that [Schnur] would be embraced for trying to help people, and instead the local people were a little uptight and weird about it."

Like Melamede, Schnur is interested in the variety of diseases marijuana may be useful in treating. But considering his personal battle, he has a special interest in its impact on diabetes. Schnur says he will likely lose his right foot within five years due to complications of the disease.

Making it legitimate

Imagine a bunch of stoned college students playing video games and passing around a joint. Now make those college students cancer patients. This is what a lot of folks think when they hear the term "medical marijuana."

Clearly, the fight for acceptance involves some effort on the PR side.

The first step is to get rid of the joint. Schnur is working on developing marijuana gums, lotions, fruit drinks and more. Losing the smoking element will help patients' lungs, as well.

Another misconception, Schnur says, is that all patients want to get high. Some people are looking for a different benefit, he says, like a reduction in swelling. Schnur, who's now fully registered to self-medicate, says he's developing strains of cannabis to treat specific ailments. Not all strains get you high.

Finally, Schnur is working on ingredient labels for various strains of cannabis. He hopes standardizing pot will give it legitimacy in the medical community.

For now, Schnur is serving his three years of probation and chipping away at 300 hours of community service. He says probation officers are overzealous in overseeing his legal use of medical marijuana, and says they've even threatened to take away his three rescued pit bulls.

His felony conviction will also limit his career choices.

"As a felon, I will never get a legitimate job as a researcher, even with a Ph.D.," he says. "There is nothing I love more than science." stanley@csindy.com

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