Medical marijuana: Just what the doctor ordered for North Carolina? 7/4/09|Gaston Gazette| by Corey Friedman Prescription painkillers made her retch. Muscle relaxants ravaged her liver. So Jean Marlowe put down her pills and rolled a joint. "I tried marijuana, and in five minutes, my stomach stopped shaking for the first time in five years," said Marlowe, who has used marijuana as medicine since a doctor recommended the drug in 1990. "It really does work." The founder and executive director of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients' Network, Marlowe is asking state lawmakers to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana use. The bill is currently in the House of Representatives' Health Committee, and two of Gaston County's three House delegates who serve on the committee have indicated they would likely vote against it. House Bill 1380, the N.C. Medical Marijuana Act, would allow patients access to medical-grade cannabis with a signed statement from a physician. Growers and dispensaries would be licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health and Human Services. "All of these people who have been kindly, caringly, lovingly sticking their necks out to grow a little bit of high-quality medication for patients could actually come forward and get a license and be legal," Marlowe said. North Carolina would become the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana and would see estimated annual tax revenues of $60 million within four years of the bill's passage. No local support Reps. Wil Neumann and Pearl Burris Floyd said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have to approve marijuana for medical use before they would consider writing an exception into the state's cannabis ban. "The FDA needs to make the determination of whether it has medical benefits or not," Neumann said. "I would not favor it until the FDA comes out and wants it properly cultivated and harvested for medicinal properties." Marijuana faces a political minefield in the fight for federal recognition. The FDA discounted its potential medical application in a 2006 review, contradicting a 1999 study from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine that found it "moderately well suited" for treating certain conditions. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls marijuana the nation's most abused illicit drug and classifies it as a Schedule I controlled substance, indicating "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Floyd challenges those who support medical marijuana to seek FDA approval. "It would be nearly impossible to regulate an illegal recreational drug even with a good doctor's prescription," she said in an e-mail. "If it is such a great idea and an untapped source of revenue, then it would meet the rigors of the FDA approval process." Rep. William A. Current said he is "skeptical" of medical marijuana but has not studied the issue enough to have an informed opinion. "I just haven't heard enough to reach any kind of decision on it, but from what I know, I would be hesitant to open this door unless we had really tight controls," he said. Current, a private-practice dentist, said he would rely more on medical and scientific evidence than personal feelings when deciding which way to vote. "I think the medical community is going to have to step up on this issue and help make this decision," he said. "People in political realms are not equipped to make these decisions without their guidance." Marijuana as medicine Marijuana is "moderately well-suited for particular conditions" including nausea and vomiting from cancer patients' chemotherapy and the rapid loss of body weight known as "wasting" in AIDS patients, according to the 1999 Institute of Medicine study, "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base." Long lists of side effects accompany many prescription drugs, and overdosing can be fatal. Advocates say by comparison, cannabis offers a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals. "There are no side effects that are harmful," Marlowe said. "There has been over 5,000 years of documented medical use of cannabis, and not a single death has ever occurred." Marlowe said a user would have to smoke 1,500 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes - a physical impossibility - to ingest a toxic dose. "There is no such thing as a lethal dose," she said. Muscle relaxants can weaken patients by gnawing away at their muscle tissue, Marlowe said, but cannabis allows them to maintain their strength. "Almost every one of the muscle relaxers helps with muscle spasms, but they also atrophy the muscle over a period of time," she said. "One unique property of cannabis is it can stop smooth muscle spasms while maintaining the muscle mass." Marijuana increases users' heart rates and may decrease blood pressure, according to a 2001 American Medical Association report. It can impair short-term memory, motor skills, reaction time and information processing skills. Chronic users can experience withdrawal symptoms, but doctors conclude that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol and tobacco products. "Although some marijuana users develop dependence, they appear to be less likely to do so than users of alcohol and nicotine, and the abstinence syndrome is less severe," the AMA states in Report Six of the Council on Scientific Affairs. In the 2001 report, AMA doctors encouraged researchers to develop a smoke-free inhaled delivery system for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive substance in marijuana. "Like tobacco, chronic marijuana smoking is associated with lung damage, increased symptoms of chronic bronchitis, and possibly increased risk of lung cancer," the report states. Marlowe refutes the belief that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads users to try more harmful substances. She points to members of the N.C. Cannabis Patients' Network who were formerly prescribed heavy-duty painkillers. "Not only have none of them gone to hard drugs, they've all come off of narcotics," she said. "Marijuana is not a gateway drug. The most recognizable, easiest gateway drug that most people run into is tobacco." A continuing crusade An institute in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park processes and distributes medical marijuana to select participants in a nationwide federal study, according to the text of HB 1380. Meanwhile, the 386 patients of the N.C. Cannabis Patients' Network cannot legally obtain the drug themselves. "Our oldest patient is an 86-year-old World War II veteran who suffered nerve damage to his feet from the heavy packs he carried during the war," Marlowe said. "Now he's suffering, and he has to be considered a criminal." Marlowe, too, has been considered a criminal for her medical use of marijuana. The Mill Spring resident said she uses the drug to treat her numerous medical conditions, including muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative disc disease. She was arrested in 1998 when U.S. Customs agents intercepted a package of cannabis she ordered from a farm in Switzerland. A judge sentenced her to six months on house arrest and two years of probation, but Marlowe was soon convicted of a probation violation because of her continued marijuana use. She spent 10 months in a federal prison camp in West Virginia. "It's been a battle," she said. "I've been doing this for 17 years." HB 1380's future is uncertain. Health Committee members did not vote on the bill after a June 18 hearing, which included testimony from Marlowe and other NCCPN patients. The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford), said he will seek a vote to move the bill out of committee without prejudice. The Health Committee would not vote on the bill's merits, but majority approval would allow it to proceed to the House Finance Committee. "It's just one step closer to a full debate on the floor, and that's what I really desire more than anything," Jones said. "Every time the public hears more about this, many myths are dispelled, and we see an increase in support." Jones also filed a companion bill, HB 1383, which proposes a referendum on medical marijuana. The mechanism for licensing growers and dispensaries is identical to the one proposed in HB 1380. "There are those who continue to feel some trepidation about it because it's a political liability," he said. "One option would be to allow the citizens of the state of North Carolina to vote on it."