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Medical marijuana issues raised

by Merrie Leininger

On November’s ballot, a question will be asked of Nevada residents: Will you give sick people the option of using medical marijuana?

A petition circulated by members of Americans for Medical Rights received signatures from 13 of Nevada’s 17 counties, enough to be put on the ballot.

The initiative now has to pass two successive votes and then the Legislature.

The petition calls for legislation that would allow cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis patients the use of marijuana for alleviation of symptoms.

It would restrict use by minors without parental consent and protect patients from prosecution.

Law enforcement officials would have a list of people who are using the drug.

The petition does not call for insurance companies to cover the cost of the drug for patients or allow for public use or use in the workplace.

Dr. John Kelly, an oncologist from Carson City, said he has had patients use marijuana to alleviation their nausea, but he has also prescribed Marinol.

Marinol contains one of what is considered the most active ingredients of marijuana.

“There is a tablet called Marinol that we utilize on a regular basis that has two benefits,” Kelly said. “It helps nausea and improves their appetite. Unfortunately, it only helps about 25 percent of patients.”

When patients ask him about using the illegal drug, he usually prescribes Marinol, he said.

Neither Marinol nor marijuana is primarily used to control pain, he said.

He said he does not have any patients using marijuana that he knows of, but he usually has about four or five at a time on Marinol.

The problem with Marinol is its cost, he said; $10 a pill.

“It’s expensive, so some people can’t afford it. They try it for three or four weeks, then only about a fourth of people are helped by it or they can’t afford it anymore,” he said.

n “I just wanted to feel normal again.” The cost was one of the factors that played into Steffani Barger’s use of marijuana when she was being treated for bone cancer.

Barger, 26, of Gardnerville, is now in remission after a year of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery to kill the cancer in her leg and upper arm.

She was also on 10 different kinds of pills a day, she said, which wreaked havoc on her body, already weakened by the chemotherapy.

She went home to the Bay Area to live with her parents and get medical treatment there soon after her diagnosis with osteosarcoma in March 1997.

The doctors in the Bay Area hospitals she went to strongly advised the use of marijuana to help her get through the chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and the side effects of the 10 pills a day she took.

“It was pretty aggressive treatment because of my age,” Barger said. “But it didn’t do what they wanted it to in terms of shrinking it, but it stopped growing.”

She was on chemotherapy for three months until the surgery that replaced the bone with titanium rods and balls in the joints, and then again after the surgery.

The chemotherapy caused her to be so weak she had to have a platelet and blood transfer before her surgery. The medication was also causing her to throw up every day and she lost 18 pounds in two weeks.

The pills caused the skin on her tongue to die, a very painful experience, she said.

Her doctors told her marijuana would help her with all the side effects, she said, but she was skeptical.

Finally her father went to a cannabis club and bought the drug.

“You are just under so much stress and depression and sadness – it was peace of mind,” she said. “Otherwise I was just crying. It was very comforting. It helped calm me down and put everything into perspective.

She said the medication also caused insomnia and a sensitivity to light that marijuana relieved.

“I slept two hours a day for the first three months,” she said. “I would sit in a room with the lights off and the door shut and even when I took a bath I would leave the lights off or just have a candle.”

People who are as sick as she was, she said, just want to feel normal again, and even if marijuana can only do that for a short time, they should be allowed to do that without fear of prosecution.

“People don’t understand why people who are sick need this,” Barger said. “It’s no one else’s business; they don’t know what’s going on. It doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

She said the drug did have some affect on her during the time she was smoking it, but insists it’s not debilitating.

“I was a little slower while I was smoking it, but I passed my real estate class while I was on it and it just helped me be normal again.”

While she still has checkups every three months and still finds it necessary to have a nap every day, she is home again in Gardnerville and planning for her wedding next month.

Her fiance, Todd McCullough, 27, and her family are some of the biggest supporters of medical marijuana now, she said.

“My mom and step-dad really were anti-pot before, but the watched me go through it and it changed their minds. It changed a lot of people’s minds.”

n Moving forward. Dan Hart, a political consultant in Las Vegas, led the call for medical marijuana in Nevada. He was urged by members of the California branch of Americans for Medical Rights, the same group who worked on passing the California law.

He said the language on the petition is purposely vague because of the problems California has faced with their cannabis clubs.

“We thought since the petition had to pass twice and then go through the Legislature, they would develop the rules and regulation for distribution,” Hart said. “Given that much time, the problems in California might be ironed out on national level already.”

The petition also does not call for doctors to have to prescribe the drug, only advise their patients that it might help relieve their symptoms.

“We didn’t want to jeopardize doctors’ rights to prescribe medicine,” Hart said.

Hart said the initiative has received a very positive response so far.

“It is a very reasonable petition,” he said. “It only has to do with the alleviation of symptoms of those people who are severely sick. We’re not suggesting this drug should be used by everybody suffering these diseases, but in some cases it can help.”

Hart said he has had several family members suffer from cancer.

“But above and beyond, I think its the right thing to do,” he said.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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