What does it mean to feel better?
What does it mean to “feel better”? What is “medical use” -- of anything? Are “doctors” endowed by their creator with certain unassailable knowledge that those without the certificate can not own? Do elected officials, by virtue of having received one more vote than their opponents, own more knowledge than doctors? Is it different to “feel better” in the United States than it is in Canada or Mexico, or in Thailand or Somalia? Within the answers to these questions -- or separately from them -- do I have any right to decide what makes me feel better?
I’m a smart guy. My grades in school told everyone that. Yet, the fact that we even have arguments over the questions listed above is utterly incomprehensible to me. When one factors in that doctors are allowed by politicians to prescribe to patients for their discomforts and illnesses chemical compounds that often cause worse effects than the conditions for which they are prescribed, one is left wondering if there is intelligent life anywhere on this continent.
When one adds to that mix the fact that a naturally-occurring herbal remedy that relieves pain and nausea caused by a wide range of adverse physical conditions in a wide range of people – with no adverse side effects -- is illegal to use because the politicians think it makes people feel too much better, the arguments become circular; the answer to each new question predicated on an erroneous answer to a previous question, until we have a whole continent full of politicians, doctors, cops and pundits running in circles and barking at the moon.
With the stroke of a pen in 1970, Richard Nixon codified the ludicrous presumption by a majority of Congress that “marijuana” has “no medical use”. That same slash of ink also changed the entire concept of “medical care”. Doctors educated in the entire accrued medical knowledge of mankind were now to be told their business by politicians whose seats were purchased by corporations whose business is dispensing dangerous chemical compounds for wide popular use.
No medical use? Can there be a more arrogant hypothesis about a God-given green, seed-bearing growing thing? It seems obvious to me that it is precisely because there is medical use for “marijuana” that it is so vilified.
Thousands and thousands of people are sentenced by the law to either endure pain and nausea or to become criminals in order to quell their pain and nausea. Doctors who know that cannabis often works to quell pain and nausea are reduced to whispering to their patients, “I can’t be telling you this, but if you could find some marijuana and smoke it, it could very well give you some relief. Even if it doesn’t work for you, we know it won’t cause you any harm.” There is no medicine marketed by the corporations, not even aspirin, about which a doctor can say that.
Each of the United States enacted copies of the federal law. For 25 years, there was “no medical use” of cannabis, according to federal and state laws. In 1995, the weight of scientific and anecdotal fact became so heavy the state laws began to topple. California’s, then Oregon’s, Washington’s, Nevada’s, Colorado’s, Hawaii’s, Alaska’s, Maine’s, and Montana’s voters decided that they would no longer prosecute some of their sick, disabled and dying patients for trying to feel better. Maryland’s and Vermont’s legislatures took timid steps in the same direction.
None of these new state laws are satisfactory. They all grant doctors the right to practice medicine a little better. They all grant some patients the right to possess and use cannabis as part of their therapy. They all leave a disturbing gap in the process of legal procurement of the medicine.
In May, a group called South Dakotans for Safe Access, of which I am a founding member, formed for the purpose of codifying another such unsatisfactory state law. The vehicle we had to work with is called an “initiative”. We drafted a proposed addition to South Dakota Codified Law titled, “An Act to provide safe access to medical marijuana for certain qualified persons.”
The Safe Access Act is similar to the initiated measure passed by 62 percent of Montana’s voters in their November 2004 election. Proposed changes to South Dakota law include:
1. That people suffering from medical conditions that cause acute or chronic pain, dangerous or painful muscle spasms, or severe nausea or loss of appetite qualify for cannabis therapy.
2. That a patient and doctor may decide to try a course of cannabis therapy, and register with the Dept. of Health.
3. That a patient and his or her caretaker may each possess 6 live cannabis plants and an ounce of usable cannabis
4. That a person using cannabis for therapy may advance a 'medical necessity' defense in the event of arrest, even though he or she has not yet registered as a qualifying patient.
5. That a person with a registry card identifying him or her as a qualifying patient need not worry about being arrested for possession, and his/her registered caretaker need not worry about being arrested for distribution.
The unsatisfactory nature of this proposal is obvious. Every action taken on the part of a patient to obtain, grow or use cannabis is illegal under federal law. Even within the already-enacted state medical marijuana laws there is no provision for legally obtaining seeds or harvested buds. The presumption seems to be that possession of marijuana plus possession of a state medical marijuana card means that the obvious commission of a crime already committed is ignored.
Such are the interpretations of the rules of a game conducted within the framework of a premise that is itself ludicrous. But, given its inclination for evil, perhaps we’re lucky that the political process is also slow and stupid.
The actual process of putting an initiated measure on the ballot is far less romantic than the lofty ideology that propels us to presume to promote a measure we find immensely unsatisfactory ourselves.
This is what about 20 people, including me, each do for six or seven hours a week. We go to court houses, convenience stores, libraries and street corners in South Dakota and hang out, asking everyone who comes near, “Hi, would you like to help us put the issue of medical marijuana use on the ballot for next year’s election?” In a typical three-hour shift, we might ask that question 300 or 400 times.
We each carry a clipboard or two, a few pens, and the petition sheets, which include the 2362-word (half again as long as this article) text of our proposal. The petition sheets also have spaces for signatures and addresses of 20 registered South Dakota voters. In a tiring three-hour stint, most of us can fill five to eight sheets with signatures.
By May 1, 2006, we will have submitted the signatures of more than 20,000 people to the South Dakota Secretary of State. South Dakota law provides that if 16,728 of those signatures belong to registered voters, our issue becomes a question to be answered by South Dakota voters on November 7, 2006. The question is, “Should doctors and patients in South Dakota have the right to decide, at least as freely as doctors and patients in eleven other states, what is the best course of therapy for their specific situations?”
23 of the United States provide for citizen initiatives. Without the initiative process, there still would be no legally recognized medical cannabis use in the United States. Without initiated precursors, Maryland and Vermont’s legislatures would not have had the courage to do the right thing.
Once having qualified for the ballot in a state, no medical marijuana initiative has failed. South Dakota is viewed as a possible bellwether state in this progression. South Dakota has some of the most draconian marijuana laws in the nation. A positive-for-THC urinalysis of an otherwise completely peaceful honest person can cost him his driving license, his home, his children, his cash, his car and his ability to earn a living, as well as his freedom for a while.
South Dakota is also typified by some of the stupidest legislators and bureaucrats on earth (an honor presented among a highly-contested race). Recently, assistant attorney general Charlie McGuigan testified to a fawning legislative committee that the presence of “carciginians” in cannabis smoke presented ample reason to deny its benefits to sick, disabled and dying people.
The best thing I can say about this process is that the process itself provides rewards (in the realm of personal growth and acquisition of new friends) to those of us asking for signatures. It had better. If the election itself goes our way, we will only have become a step along the way to what we hope is some measure of enlightenment as a society. We will, in actuality, have achieved very little. The feds will still be able to harass patients and their caregivers. South Dakota law enforcement will still actively break the law, providing assistance to the feds.
Our choices are to take a step we hope will be beneficial, or to silently endure the outrages of a system that arbitrarily punishes some people for using health-enhancing substances not approved by the state. That doesn’t seem like much of a choice to me.
Matthew Ducheneaux: quadriplegic from a car wreck, used marijuana to quell muscle spasms caused by spinal injury. Was arrested in Sioux Falls, So. Dak., for possession in 2000, was denied a defense incorporating ‘medical necessity’. The prosecutor stipulated that Ducheneaux benefited from marijuana use, but said that the law says there is “no medical use” for marijuana. Ducheneaux was convicted, fined and sentenced to jail for attempting to prolong his own life.