“We have a plant that can benefit people, and yet to be allowed to use it, we have to put ourselves and everyone around us at risk. We need to be able to use something that’s a benefit without risking everything we love.” — Emily Williams of Fayetteville
By Terrah Baker
For some, legalizing medical marijuana comes down to compassion for Arkansas citizens suffering from serious illness and pain. For others, it’s a common sense approach to the doctor-patient relationship — being able to prescribe the medicine most appropriate for the symptoms and conditions of an illness. But on the other side, legalizing medical marijuana is opening the door to a society of acceptance of a potentially dangerous drug.
Advocates of the legalization of medical marijuana had a victory for their cause in August when they turned in approximately 130,000 signatures of supporters throughout the state. If all of the signatures are verified by the Secretary of State’s office in the next few weeks, the initiative will be on the November ballot for Arkansas voters to have their say.
Ryan Denham of Fayetteville is a main organizer for the advocacy group Arkansans for Compassionate Care. The group includes members throughout the state, many of which joined after hearing stories of patients risking everything to use the only drug they say eases their suffering, or after becoming a patient themselves.
“Patients are left with two horrible choices — they break the law by following their doctors’ orders and obtain marijuana on the black market from drug dealers, often times in dangerous situations. They risk everything — their kids, their job, their house, their livelihood — to follow through with what their doctor thinks is the best treatment for them. Or they continue to suffer because they don’t get medical marijuana,” Denham said.
Legalization would provide a third option — the right to obtain medical marijuana in a “tightly regulated environment” with a doctor’s recommendation.
The bill was modeled after a similar measure in Maine passed in 2009, and sets out several important regulations that Denham said will allow the drug to be tightly monitored.
Limit On Dispensaries
Unlike in California — the first state to legalize the drug in 1996 — which has no limits on the number of dispensaries allowed, this bill would allow for a total of 30 dispensaries in the state. This would ensure, Denham said, that the number of dispensaries does not reach uncontrollable levels.
Six Plants Grown Per Patient
Dispensaries would be regulated by the Arkansas Department of Health who would ensure only the allowable number of plants are being grown. Each dispensary would be able to grow 90 start-up plants, and eventually up to six plants per patient, allowing each patient to obtain 5 ounces per month, or 2.5 ounces every two weeks.
Computerized Systems and ID Cards For Patients
Patients must first be inflicted with one of 15 specified illnesses or symptoms in order to be prescribed medical marijuana. Once the doctor prescribes the drug, the patient obtains an ID card that allows them to carry marijuana as any other legal substance.
“It’s pretty cut and dry. If you’re under 21 and you get caught with alcohol, the officer knows because your license says you’re under 21. This is a pretty similar situation. If you don’t have the medical marijuana card and you get caught, you’re in trouble,” Denham explained.
The patients would be entered into a computer system that would allow them to purchase from just one designated dispensary, and only the limited amount of marijuana.
Growing Their Own
If a patient lives more than 5 miles from a dispensary, they would be allowed to grow up to six plants for personal medical use. This way, Denham said, patients can have a cost-effective way to obtain their medicine.
“We want to make this a cost affordable law as well. Medications can get to be very expensive for people who are already stretched on finances,” Denham said.
Legalization For Recreational Use
Despite these regulations, those who oppose the measure argue control of the distribution would be impossible, and that supporters are well aware of that.
“They know that if you let people start growing marijuana in their own backyard, law enforcement will not be able to keep up with that,” said Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council Action Committee — a politically and religiously conservative organization who stands as a main opponent to the measure.
Denham argues that to see where their motives lie, opposition like Cox need only look at who is involved in their organization, and what associations support the cause.
While over 100 public health associations support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, many of those same organizations don’t support legalization for recreational use. And because many of the advocates are the very patients who use, or want to be allowed to use, marijuana as a medication, their motives lie only in medical use of marijuana, Denham said.
Many of the patients who turned to medical marijuana, did so from recommendation of a physician, or from research on its abilities to ease serious symptoms.
The traditional medicines, sometimes strong narcotics, have the potential for causing serious harm in patients after extended use, and cause unintended side effects that can be avoided by using marijuana.
One such patient, Emily Williams, wife of Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2010. She underwent five rounds of chemotherapy in six months, which resulted in extreme nausea, headaches and fatigue. She was unable to eat, drink, or take any of her medication as a result of these side effects. That’s when she turned to medical marijuana.
“Unfortunately, for a large number of patients manufactured drugs don’t work. In my case nothing worked for vomiting and nausea except for the marijuana,” Williams said.
Another Fayetteville resident, Kenneth Taylor, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, degenerative bone disease and disk disease and diabetes. His “pharmaceutical cocktail” of medications, totaling about $9,200 a year, causes side effects and still leaves him struggling to find relief from pain. He’s never tried medical marijuana, but has done his own research and feels if he wasn’t risking everything, marijuana may be the relief he’s looking for.
“(Medical marijuana) can’t possibly be worse than taking 20 hydrocodone a day. If it has the potential to be effective, then I have the right to know. I’ve tried everything else. All I want is to find relief,” Taylor said.
Currently, marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, along with drugs like heroin and cocaine. Because of this, researchers are unable to do further testing on the positive effects many patients have attested to. This also sets the agenda for federal law enforcement when dealing with medical marijuana on the state level.
This is despite a recommendation in 1988 from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis L. Young, to reclassify marijuana based on it being “one of the safest therapeutically-active substances known.”
“We need to place it in its own schedule with parameters unique to its own characteristics,” said Fayetteville resident Marvin Singleton, a retired Republican state senator from Missouri, ex-president of the State Medical Association and retired physician.
Right now, he said, the research is anecdotal, meaning patients have used it and are testifying on the benefits. Putting it in an appropriate classification would mean controlled, extensive research could be completed.
Doctor-Patient Rights, Compassion
To Singleton, it comes down to being a compassionate doctor and individual.
“It seems to me to be a compassionate doctor we need to be able to prescribe virtually whatever makes our patients feel better, get healthier faster as long as it doesn’t cause harm, which is (a physician’s) oath,” he said.
If opponents like Cox were able to sit down with a patient and hear their stories of suffering and how marijuana cured that, Denham said he believes they could see what this campaign is really about.
The Compassion campaign’s website lists Robert Jackson, a U.S. Navy veteran, as an example. After a 10,000-pound storage shed collapsed on top of him, he was left paralyzed having to use a wheelchair and engulfed in neuropathic pain 24 hours a day. While the traditional medications caused painful constipation and stole his appetite, marijuana eased his cramps, helped him to keep down food and allowed him to stop taking the drugs that were causing him discomfort.
“You need to read a patient’s story or talk to a patient. [Opponents] just don’t understand that this is a real issue,” Denham said.
What’s Next For the Campaign
Cox said if the measure does make it on the ballot in November, the organization he represents is ready to challenge it by checking all of the signatures the campaign submitted.
With misinformation Cox attested to like no medical associations supporting the cause, it being a backdoor route to recreational use and it being in-line with being allowed to brew moonshine for medical purposes, Denham said the campaign has their work cut out.
In the next few months — especially if the measure makes the ballot — advocates will be working on educating others on why this issue is about compassion, and how joining the ranks of the 17 states that have already legalized medical marijuana brings Arkansas one step closer to easing the suffering of patients throughout the state.