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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Compassion balanced with responsibility

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

 — Imagine for a moment that someone you love is suffering from debilitating pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment or surgical measures for more than six months. Her doctor, seeing that the other treatments are not alleviating her pain, recommends that she try marijuana, as it has been effective alleviating the pain of other patients, without any significant negative side effects.
Would you want that pain relief to be a legal option for your loved one?
Imagine now that another person you love is going through chemotherapy treatments, hoping to kill the cancer cells in her body. The treatment is causing nausea so severe she is unable to eat and her strength is deteriorating rapidly. Her doctor, having seen this condition hundreds of times before, recommends that she use marijuana to diminish the nausea and regain her appetite.
Would you want your loved one to have that legal option?
These are the questions Issue 5, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, pose to you as a voter. If you believe that it is compassionate to provide patients with serious illnesses relief through the medical use of marijuana, then you should vote for the measure.

Opponents of Issue 5 want to distract you from the true purpose of the initiative. Instead of talking about the needs of patients, they make exaggerated claims about the harms posed by marijuana. But they are, without question, exaggerations.
An entire column could be dedicated to explaining how marijuana is far less harmful than almost every pharmaceutical product available on the market. For example, it is impossible to have a fatal marijuana overdose, yet Tylenol causes hundreds of accidental overdose deaths annually.
But don’t take it from me. Here is a quote from Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrative law judge Francis Young, made when he was issuing an opinion about whether marijuana should be taken out of the most restrictive category of drugs under federal law:
“Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.”
At the same time opponents of Issue 5 are exaggerating the danger of marijuana, they are also making wild claims about medical marijuana laws somehow posing a danger to teens. In doing so, they ignore the plain facts that exist. There is no statistical evidence showing that medical marijuana laws automatically lead to increases in teen use in the states in which the laws exist. In fact, the opposite is often true.
In Colorado, which has the most advanced system of medical marijuana regulations, teen marijuana use has dropped 11 percent since 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the same time period, teen marijuana use has increased 11 percent across the U.S.
Speaking of Colorado, our opponents like to suggest that passing Issue 5 will turn Arkansas into California or Colorado, states which have large numbers of dispensaries. They have failed to mention that the proposed measure limits the number of dispensaries in the state to 30, unless the Department of Health itself determines that additional dispensaries are needed to serve seriously ill patients in more remote parts of the state. By strategically placing dispensaries across the state, the Department of Health can limit any personal growth of marijuana.
Issue 5 is not an attempt to turn Arkansas into California. In fact, if one were to read the text of the measure, one would see that we have learned from the mistakes in that state and have drafted the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act so that it is harder to sell marijuana and harder to get marijuana. The goal, pure and simple, is to provide seriously ill patients safe and legal access to the medicine they need.
The model for Arkansas is New Mexico, where about two dozen dispensaries serve approximately 6,000 patients. There are no accusations in that state of abuse of the system, even though chronic pain is one of the qualifying conditions. In fact, the most common qualifying condition for patients in the state is post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition added by the state Department of Health after a hearing to determine whether the existing research justified allowing patients to use it legally.
We have been most disappointed during this campaign by the public statements from some members of law enforcement. While we respect their work and their commitment to public safety, we believe they simply do not understand the measure we have placed upon the ballot.
The chronic pain issue is a good example. Opponents of this measure make it seem as if the Arkansas program would be as loose as what is seen in California, where it is truly possible to obtain a card to use medical marijuana without any prior medical history.That simply will not be the case under the system proposed by Issue 5.
Only patients with specific diagnosed illnesses, like cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Crohn’s Disease, will qualify to use medical marijuana. As noted at the beginning of this column, it will also be possible to qualify for medical marijuana use if one has “intractable pain,” but it will be necessary to prove that this pain has not responded to other recommended medications or treatments for more than six months. Anyone who fails to comply with the regulations will lose their rights under the act and can be criminally prosecuted.
We are running this campaign for a very simple reason. We believe seriously ill patients should not be arrested for alleviating their suffering with marijuana if their doctor has recommended its use. The decision to use medical marijuana is a decision that should be made by the patient and their doctor. The initiative has been narrowly and conservatively drafted to accomplish that purpose.
Please take time to read the initiative yourself. You will find that it is good for patients, good for Arkansas, and deserving of your vote.
David Couch is the Board Counsel for Arkansans for Compassionate Care. This OP/ED appeared in the Sunday, October 28, 2012 edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

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