Home All Articles Advertise Toking it to the streets: activists petition for medical marijuana

Rochelle Lampkin of Detroit doesn't drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or use drugs for recreation. But about once a month, she takes in a substance that she says benefits her quality of life even though it's against the law.

She uses marijuana for medicinal purposes.

I have a problem with my optic nerve, Lampkin explained. It's called optic neuritis, and the nerve swells up. If I smoke one marijuana cigarette or even use a vaporizer, which I truly prefer, it relaxes the nerve. {mosimage}

Lampkin is just one example of an underground group of Michigan residents who say they use pot not to get high, but to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cancer and other illnesses.

And recently, a Ferndale-based group called the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care (MCCC) declared it would fight for medical users' right to toke without having to fear prison. The coalition hopes to do this through a new initiative campaign that could leave the issue up to state voters in November 2008.

A narrowly defined agenda

Michigan law bans marijuana use and grants no exception for medical reasons. Pro-medical marijuana activists say their initiative, called the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, would change state law to let patients grow, possess and use cannabis under a doctor's recommendation. (The drug is spelled marihuana throughout the initiative's text.)

MCCC spokeswoman Dianne Byrum said while she had no solid statistics, she believes medical users have been arrested in Michigan before. And that is what activists in her group are trying to change.

Byrum, who works at Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications in East Lansing, is a former state lawmaker of 16 years who once was the Democratic leader of the Michigan House of Representatives. She said the MCCC approached her for the spokeswoman job.

I think it's the right thing to do, she said. It's good public policy.

Byrum said the initiative calls for safeguards to ensure that only medical patients with serious or debilitating diseases can use pot legally. Some of the listed debilitating conditions include AIDS, agitation of Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer, Crohn's disease, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV, and nail patella.

In addition, the initiative demands the existence of a genuine doctor-patient relationship, and the doctor's recommendation for treatment must be in writing.

Patients would need ID cards to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population. Prohibitions on using pot in public or driving under the influence would remain.

Lastly, patients and caregivers would have limits on how much of a supply they could possess at any one time. The initiative's text specifies that patients could only possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis, and they could grow up to 12 marijuana plants so long as they are kept in an enclosed, locked facility. A user may also possess stalks, seeds and unusable roots so long as they have an incidental amount.

Unlike a recently passed state initiative that banned racial preferences, Byrum said the MCCC's initiative would not alter the Michigan Constitution.

Putting the 'grass' in grassroots

This is not the first time that a campaign has been launched to legalize or decriminalize cannabis on some level in Michigan. During this decade alone, pro-marijuana activists have repeatedly tried (and failed) to put such an initiative on the ballot.

But Byrum said the latest campaign aims to be narrow in scope that is, restricted to medical users. The Coalition for Compassionate Care is only talking about the medical use of marijuana, she said. {mosimage}

Byrum said the coalition is taking no chances of having its effort go up in smoke. To successfully put the initiative on the November 2008 ballot, the MCCC needs to produce 304,101 valid signatures within a span of six months, she said. Activists intend to increase their odds by trying to gather about 550,000 signatures. That's because the coalition believes there is an approximate 55 percent validity rate for such signatures.

The petition effort is in its early stages, and a mixture of volunteers and paid staff started to get them signed in late May. The MCCC also is seeking donations and directing curious people to its Web site, stoparrestingpatients.org.

Smoky specifics

The MCCC proudly wears the grassroots label, but a few of its specifics still remain hidden in the tall grass.

Thomas Morgan, a spokesman from Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications (and former City Pulse managing editor), said the MCCC is the natural outgrowth of local medical marijuana initiatives in communities around the state. Paperwork filed with the secretary of state says the group formally established itself in late April.

The MCCC's membership is mostly mysterious. Byrum said she didn't yet know how many members the coalition has. And while the coalition's Web site promises to soon list donors and petition passers, it only lists one member, petition organizer Krystal Martinez.

According to paperwork the MCCC filed with the state in late April, Martinez is also the group's treasurer. However, Martinez declined to go into details about the group's leadership, deferring all questions to Byrum.

And then there is the issue of money. A thermometer graphic on the MCCC's Web site reveals that activists have a fundraising goal of $450,000 in pledges by November. But while the MCCC is asking for donations, it is not yet clear who is funding the organization or whether the coalition is getting money from outside the state.

In other states, supporters of medical marijuana initiatives have earned the backing of George Soros, an international financier and billionaire from New York. In recent years, Soros attracted the media's eye for being a major supporter of liberal causes. Byrum said her group has not received money from Soros at this time but would accept any support in the future. We welcome any contribution, she said.

Activists express optimism

If the campaign gets enough valid signatures, the initiative goes to the Legislature. Byrum said lawmakers won't be allowed to change the initiative's text they must accept it, reject it or choose not to vote on it. If they choose not to pass it, then Michigan residents will have their turn to decide the fate of the proposed law.

Byrum did not want to predict how the Legislature would approach the MCCC's effort.

But there already is a cautious sense of optimism among some medical marijuana supporters, especially in light of the cause's recent list of successes.

Michigan NORML, a pro-legalization group, cheered when members of the Michigan Democratic Party passed a medical cannabis resolution at their annual state convention in February. The resolution decried any punishment against licensed doctors who recommend marijuana to patients who need it. It also argued that seriously ill people shouldn't be criminalized for taking it under a physician's care.

However, Michigan Democratic Party spokesman Jason Moon said he is not commenting on the MCCC's initiative until it actually makes its way onto the ballot.

Michigan NORML's executive director, the Rev. Steven Thompson, declined to discuss the specifics of the MCCC's initiative, but he said he supports the effort, and he added that some members of his organization would be helping out.

Thompson, 59, said he sees the struggle as a civil rights issue and wants legalization not only for patients but for everyone else too.

Byrum flatly denied that the MCCC had any official or unofficial ties to Thompson's group or its agenda. There is no coordination, she said. This is very, very different from the goals of Michigan NORML. This is medical marijuana only.

So far, 12 states have been sympathetic to the argument from supporters of medical marijuana and have adopted laws protecting medical pot users from arrest. Those states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. New Mexico became the most recent addition to the list when Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., signed it into law this spring.

And while pot is still banned under Michigan law, voters from five Michigan cities have approved initiatives in an effort to protect medical users.

Detroit was the state's first city to legalize it in August 2004, and the most recent was Flint in February 2007. Ann Arbor, Ferndale and Traverse City make up the other three cities. The proposal won by a landslide in all five locations, and support reached as high as 74.3 percent in Ann Arbor.

Byrum attributed the winning streak to public awareness about the lives of patients who swear by the drug's benefits, which is why the coalition is looking for more users to give their testimonies.

We are actively searching for people who want to go forward, she said, (but) people are very private.

One user's story

As a medical marijuana user for about four years, Rochelle Lampkin said she has faced negative stereotypes of being a pothead or stoner. That's what happened a couple of years ago when the subject of medical marijuana came up while taking a course at Wayne County Community College.

Everybody in the class was against it, and they were speaking very bad about it, she said. They were making me feel like some sort of junkie. I introduced myself as a user (who does it) for the medical uses. I managed to get them to understand.

Lampkin, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 20 years ago, said she first learned about medical marijuana while talking to other people with MS. At the time, no other drug had controlled her symptoms in a satisfactory way, she said.

At first, Lampkin was dead set against using dope. But then she did some research and decided to try it, vowing to stop if she was unhappy with the results. I did it with an open mind and an open heart, she said.

While she has used cannabis ever since, she said it only takes about one marijuana cigarette over the course of a month to treat the symptoms associated with her MS and optic neuritis. I only use enough to relax the nerve, and it does work, she said. I don't have to use it everyday, thank God.

Lampkin emphasized that she only uses the drug as medicine and doesn't inhale enough to get high. I do not agree with recreational abuse, she said. I don't agree with the abuse of anything. I'm a person who speaks against abuse of any type of medicine or any type of drug.

Dope through the microscope

Marijuana is often smoked, but experts say it can be mixed with food or inhaled via a vaporizer. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit organization that endorses medical pot, cannabis can ease nausea, enlarge the appetite, lessen muscle spasms, reduce pain and bring down pressure within the eye. As a result, the group says it is a useful treatment against maladies like glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS.

An article on MayoClinic.com affirmed that marijuana has been used to control pain, nausea, and other afflictions. However, the site also listed negative side effects, including problems with thinking and coordination, possible hallucinations, signs of withdrawal, respiratory ailments and increased risk of heart attack.

A 2001 report by the American Medical Association also listed negative side effects.

However, the report clarified that most research done on marijuana centered on non-medical users. The report also recommended more research on using cannabis to treat chronic pain, spasms and symptoms associated with chemotherapy.

At least one Michigan expert is not gung-ho about recommending the drug. Eugene Schoener, a professor from the department of pharmacology at Wayne State University, said he frequently lectures on the effects of marijuana to medical and lay audiences. Although he refuses to define himself as clearly pro or anti on the matter, he still feels strongly about it from a pharmacologist's perspective.

One problem is that it is too hard to standardize and calibrate a precise dosage for smoking weed, he said.

The drug's increased potency is another one of his issues. Today's pot isn't your grandfather's pot, he explained. Years ago in the '60s, we were talking about 3 percent purity. Now we're talking about double that with the common garden variety.

Then there are the side effects that come with smoking the product. For instance, he said inhaling the smoke sends tars and other irritating materials into the lungs, which can bring tragic consequences on respiratory functions.

Lastly, he said marijuana is absolutely addicting despite the denials from many users. We can demonstrate in animal models a physical withdrawal syndrome that looks a lot like a lower-level opiate withdrawal syndrome, he said.

As a better alternative to smoking the actual plant, Schoener said he would like to see a safer, marijuana-derived medication that works like an asthma inhaler. With the new materials that have been produced, we can look forward in the very near future to some pretty good aerosol products if there were enough of a medical incentive, he said.

One legal drug on the market called Marinol contains a synthetic form of THC, a main active ingredient found in cannabis that affects the central nervous system.

But both Schoener and pro-legalization supporters agreed that the drug could be tough for some patients to swallow. One of the biggest reasons is that is it comes in pill form, which makes things less flexible in regard to handling the dosage.

A look to the future

Even if the MCCC can persuade Michiganders to pass its initiative at the ballot box, marijuana patients may still not be totally in the clear. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that federal agents could arrest medical marijuana users even in states that have legalized the practice.

So would a pro-medical marijuana law be a mere symbolic victory with no teeth?

According to a Marijuana Policy Project report that was revised in 2006, the answer is no. The report asserts that the federal government cannot force state and local officials to enforce federal law. Furthermore, the report said the federal government typically has bigger priorities than to go knocking at the door of medical users.

To make sure medical users are protected, Byrum said proponents must reach out to a diverse group of voters, because the cause's support is not confined to any one segment of society.The question about the medical use of marijuana has crossed all sorts of party lines, she said. It has a wide base of support across all demographics ages and genders.

In the end, proponents are banking on their message that the drug can be a helpful and effective alternative treatment to some patients. But they will have to work hard to convince observers like Schoener, who believes that the issue isn't so black and white.

This is a very, very complex situation, he said. An awful lot of people (are) siding with medical marijuana as a position of what a liberal society should allow .

The opposite side says you open the door, and medical marijuana is the first step to total acceptance of marijuana. The following on it is that you'll have health problems that explode, and they have for the two dependence-producing substances that are legal alcohol and nicotine.

It comes down to a decision of whether you'll have a legal problem or a health problem, and we haven't really discussed it in those larger terms.

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