Wisconsin: Debate over Legalizing Medical Marijuana Heats Up

April 18, 2010 – Jeffrey Smith says it’s time for Wisconsin to put aside its fears and loosen its grip on the use of marijuana.

“Our best weapon is the truth,” said Smith, a Brillion resident. “We need to get past all of the old stereotypes. It’s getting past all 70-plus years of all-out lies about what the plant is and what it can do.”

Smith is a paraplegic. He said marijuana provides relief for his muscle pain. And he wants state lawmakers to approve bills this week that would allow marijuana use by those with certain debilitating medical conditions and create a state registry of those who qualify.

Time is of the essence — the bills will die if a vote isn’t taken by the end of the legislative floor period for general business on Thursday.

Opponents say Wisconsin would be ill-advised to loosen restrictions on marijuana. They see it as the first step of a slippery slope.

Appleton’s Donna Daniels, coordinator of Wisconsin Families in Action, is concerned that the growing advocacy for medical marijuana could be creating some confusion on a drug that’s still illegal and far more potent and dangerous than the marijuana of decades ago.

“There’s a need to step up education, and not just to young people, but to parents as well,” she said.

Last month, the state Department of Justice announced seven Fox Valley arrests after an investigation into a drug ring they say distributed hundreds of pounds of marijuana and $4 million worth of cocaine. Weeks later, the justice department announced two arrests and seizure of 116 marijuana plants at homes in Sauk and Columbia counties.

Meanwhile, residents statewide have attended rallies supporting bills that would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Activists held an educational event at the Appleton Public Library earlier this month. The “THC Tour” has moved throughout the state to build support for medical marijuana bills and another bill that would lift a prohibition on the manufacture of industrial hemp.

One would have to look no farther than California to get a sense of the concerns of opponents of those bills. There, voters will decide in November on whether the state would become the first to make marijuana legal for recreational use.

By most accounts, Wisconsin isn’t in the same place.

The medical marijuana bills have stalled in the Legislature after a December hearing.

Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist from Fond du Lac and member of Wisconsin’s Controlled Substances Board, joins those who see medical marijuana paving the way to full legalization.

He pointed to the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries in California and the ease by which people can obtain permits for use.

“They have more dispensaries for marijuana than there are Starbucks,” he said.

Polls: Attitudes shift

While they are far from having a consensus, activists say they’re finding more open ears than they had even a few years ago.

Jay Selthofner, field director for Wisconsin’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said tides are changing. The long-illicit plant moved from taboo to a place where people are at least willing to engage in discussion on its use.

“The time has come,” he said. “It’s not that we’re doing anything different. People aren’t afraid to speak out about it anymore.”

Polls suggest a culture shift on the issue, though viewpoints on marijuana differ by degree of restrictions.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center this month found 73 percent of Americans favored having their states allow use and sale of marijuana for medical purposes. A majority of Americans, however, still believe recreational use should remain illegal, according to an October Gallup Poll.

Margins, though, are becoming narrower.

In 1995, just 25 percent of those surveyed by the Gallup organization responded in favor of fully legalizing marijuana. In October, 44 percent supported legalization.

Polls and surveys suggest an aging baby boomer population may have a role on shifting opinions.

An even 50 percent of those questioned in the October Gallup Poll from ages 18 to 49 favored legalization. Just 28 percent of those 65 and older would support legal marijuana, according to the poll.

That gap is just as evident in terms of historical usage.

A 2008 federal survey found 9.3 percent of those 65 or older used marijuana at least once in their lifetimes. By comparison, more than 57 percent of those ages 45 to 49 reported having used the drug.

Supporters say old views have been the biggest impediment.

Gary Storck, of Madison, a longtime advocate for legalizing medical marijuana, attributes tarrying among lawmakers to misinformation spread through decades of anti-drug campaigns.

Society had been close to legalizing marijuana as late as the 1970s, he said.

He recalled one of his friends being caught by police with marijuana in 1969. Police then said they figured marijuana would be legalized within a couple of years.

Storck said it’s hard to believe it’s still an issue, particularly for medical applications.

“It’s nothing to be feared,” he said.

The medical issue

Wisconsin’s bills, if enacted, would make it the 15th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

Michigan enacted a medical marijuana law in 2008. Lawmakers in Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa also have had bills to consider.

Wisconsin’s proposals have brought passionate responses from both sides.

Doctors aren’t necessarily opposed to the idea of using the active ingredient in marijuana for medical applications, Treffert said. It is effective in certain situations.

Many in the medical community, however, are opposed to legalizing a medicine outside of the traditional Federal Drug Administration approval process. One pill based on marijuana’s active ingredient is already on the market. Another drug is going through trials, Treffert said.

“Physicians have been cast as sort of mean to people — that we’re not compassionate,” he said. “That’s not it at all.”

Treffert fears doctors would be pressured into marijuana prescriptions even when they don’t believe it’s the right treatment. He has just as much concern that medical marijuana would mean greater availability of marijuana for recreational users.

Supporters point to those who’ve gained relief as evidence of its benefit.

Selthofner talked about a young cancer patient who was bedridden and couldn’t keep food down. After talking with a friend, she tried marijuana. She was able to eat and get out of bed.

Storck discussed an Iraq War veteran who found marijuana has eased severe post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Selthofner said those who’ve talked to their doctors and found marijuana worked better than and without the side effects of other medicines shouldn’t be cast as criminals, he said.

He knows not everyone is convinced.

“It’s not for everybody,” he said of marijuana. “No medicine is for everybody.”

Debate increasing, use isn’t

The debate on marijuana hasn’t occurred in a vacuum.

Kathy Verstegen, a nurse at Kimberly High School, said students aren’t ignorant of the issue.

The Kimberly Area School District has one of the most comprehensive drug prevention programs in the region, which includes random drug testing for students who have parking spots or participate in extracurricular activities.

Verstegen conducts those tests. She’s listened to students voice opinions supporting legalization. Sometimes they want to be heard, but she suspects they many times want information.

“That’s always my opportunity to go back to the basics on marijuana and talk about the detriment and that it can ruin a young life,” she said.

One survey suggests the debate hasn’t muddied health messages directed at teens.

The Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey released in December showed declines in recent years in the number of high school students who reported marijuana use.

The percentage of students who smoked marijuana at least once in their lives was its lowest last year in the 12-year period included in the report at 34.2 percent. The percentage who used marijuana within 30 days of the survey dipped just more than one percentage point from 2007 to 18.9 percent last year. It was the second-lowest percentage in the 12-year comparison.

Treffert isn’t certain downward trends will continue

A federal study released in January said consistent declines among high school students have leveled off, as perceived risks associated with regular marijuana use has declined.

He said the medical marijuana debate has a role in how young people perceive the danger of the drug.

Changing attitudes haven’t meant a change in police encounters among adults.

Brad Dunlap, commander of the Lake Winnebago Area Metropolitan Enforcement Group Drug Unit, said marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the region, though there’s nothing from an enforcement standpoint to suggest its use is on an upswing.

“There are certainly spikes, but we see a fairly consistent number of arrests from year to year,” he said.

In Outagamie County, adult arrests for marijuana possession averaged 330 per year from 2004 through 2008. In that five-year period, the highest number of possession arrests came in 2008 with 351, state statistics show. Winnebago County’s arrest rate also maintained consistency during that period. The county saw a five-year average of 329 annual arrests. Its highest year for arrests was 2005 with 352 arrested.

Debate continues

Appleton’s Daniels said she knows what she’s up against. She attended a hearing on medical marijuana where she was the lone voice among more than 100 to speak against the bills. It’s an uphill battle, and one that starts with parents. It’s more vital than ever for parents to learn the risks out there and pass their values onto their children.

“Today’s world isn’t like it was when we were teenagers,” she said.

Smith said those in favor of lifting restrictions on hemp and marijuana have plenty of reason for confidence.

“We’re making strides,” he said.

By Jim Collar.  Source.

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