Easing the pain 

Medical marijuana supporters hope Justice Department cuts could end raids

click to enlarge Colorado Springs resident Vicki Wagner uses marijuana to help ease chronic pain from an inoperable brain condition. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Colorado Springs resident Vicki Wagner uses marijuana to help ease chronic pain from an inoperable brain condition.

Vicki Wagner occasionally eases back in her electric wheelchair and, as she puts it, lights up a "big, old fatty."

The 35-year-old Colorado Springs resident says she's been smoking marijuana so long that it doesn't make her high anymore. But she says it helps immensely when it comes to making bearable the inoperable brain condition that sometimes gives her massive headaches, chronic pain and a long list of symptoms she wouldn't wish on anybody.

"I have visual problems and am always in pain," she said. "If it wasn't for marijuana, I probably wouldn't be alive."

Wagner's doctor and the state Health Department approved her use of marijuana, allowed by the 20th Amendment to the Colorado Constitution. Voters in 2000 agreed that people could smoke marijuana if they provide legitimate medical reasons and pass an application process.

Targeted crackdowns

Yet supporters like Wagner have been troubled by what they say appear to be targeted crackdowns on medical-marijuana users. In Denver and Steamboat Springs, federal agents have recently seized plants from suppliers and users in several high-profile cases.

However, Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, flatly denies the federal government is after users.

"We have not tried to find where each medical-marijuana user lives and seize their marijuana," Dorschner said.

Rather, officers, in their normal course of investigating possible drug trafficking, have discovered high numbers of marijuana plants that by far exceed the amount allowed under the state's law, he said. Last month, federal law-enforcement officers raided three homes in Denver, seizing nearly 800 plants.

People on the state's marijuana-users registry can possess up to six marijuana plants -- three of them mature -- and up to two ounces of useable marijuana.

But the state won't help its 368 permitted medical marijuana users find the plant and pharmacies don't carry it, causing problems for people like Wagner, who says she doesn't have the space to grow plants at home.

So, she relies on a "caregiver," which is permitted by the state, to grow marijuana in Wagner's stead, ensuring her a steady supply. She worries that supply could be cut if there are more raids because two of last month's Denver busts involved caregivers that federal authorities said raised more plants than they were permitted.

"We've legalized it -- give us what the law says we're allowed," Wagner said.

A closer look

In addition to Colorado, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal in eight other states, which has compelled Congress to take a closer look at the federal government's role on how the laws are enforced.

As a result of high-profile raids, Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., have crafted an amendment seeking to do away with funds from the Justice Department for busts that "override state laws," said Wendy Darwell, Hinchey's chief of staff.

Other than Colorado, the other states that allow medical marijuana include California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Maine, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii.

click to enlarge Vicki Wagner and her cat. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Vicki Wagner and her cat.

"It's an issue Rep. Hinchey feels strongly about," Darwell said. "There is plenty of medical data supporting the role of marijuana in easing pain."

A similar amendment by the representatives was defeated last year in the House by a vote of 272 to 153.

Brian Vicente, a recent Denver University law school graduate and lobbying coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, is seeking to sway Colorado's congressional representatives, including Joel Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican.

"We have a law in favor of medical marijuana in Colorado, so why should the feds stick their noses in our business?" he asked.

Hefley last year was among two of the state's seven U.S. representatives that opposed the proposal. The others were Republican Reps. Marilyn Musgrave and Scott McInnis.

Hefley did not return a phone call seeking comment. However, Vicente said he is hopeful the conservative will be supportive when the amendment comes to a vote, probably before the week's end. Many U.S. veterans rely on medical marijuana to ease pains caused by their wartime injuries, Vicente noted, and Hefley has claimed to be supportive of veterans' issues.

Hefley also might be swayed because it can be viewed as a states' rights issue, and El Paso County, which Hefley represents, boasts 15 percent of the state's users more than any other county in the state, Vicente added.

"Why should Colorado give away its powers?" he asked.

Five years in prison

Currently under federal law, people who possess more than 100 plants face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison -- a maximum of 40 years behind bars -- and/or $2 million in fines, Dorschner said.

The American Nurses Association, a nurses' group based in Washington, D.C., has expressed support for the careful use of medical marijuana under doctor supervision. Several religious organizations have also expressed support for medical marijuana, including the United Methodist Church, the Union for Reformed Judaism, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, among others.

However, the federal government continues to view marijuana as dangerous. It is listed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act as having no acceptable, safe medical use, even with medical supervision.

The American Medical Association, meanwhile, has been cautious about medical marijuana, refusing to endorse it and instead emphasizing the need for further research into the benefits to patients.

Robert Melamede, chairman of the biology department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who supports the use of marijuana for medical purposes, says the raids could have chilling effects. That, he says, would be a shame, since science is proving marijuana's medical benefits.

"The government is telling you that marijuana kills brain cells, but that's a lie, a blatant lie," he said.

Reducing chronic pain

Melamede says marijuana has strong anti-inflammatory powers and numerous other benefits that reduce chronic pain and aid the body's internal healing mechanisms.

Other recent research has found that marijuana does no long-term damage to the brain and that it can be helpful in treating arthritis.

As Congress considers the issue, the Supreme Court in coming months will address the legality of seizures in Ashcroft et al. v. Raich et al. The case represents an appeal by the Bush administration of a California case involving a federal raid on medical marijuana users. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found it is unconstitutional for the federal government to prosecute medical marijuana users if the marijuana is not sold or transported across state lines.


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