Mon, May 20

Health official urges voters to reject medicinal marijuana measure

PHOENIX -- Arizona's top health official says voters should reject a ballot measure that would allow doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients.

Will Humble said there probably are some people who would benefit by being able to inhale the now-illegal substance. These include those who have nausea from chemotherapy and individuals who need an appetite stimulant to keep from wasting away.

But Humble said health chiefs from other states with similar laws told him the vast majority of the "medical marijuana' cards they issued were for people with "severe and chronic pain.' Humble said that, at best, is subjective.

More to the point, he said there is no evidence marijuana actually alleviates pain.

Humble is one of several individuals who crafted statements in opposition to Proposition 203 that will appear in a pamphlet to be mailed to the homes of all registered voters. County prosecutors and law enforcement officers also are urging a "no' vote on the measure, as are officers of an addiction-recovery program.

There were just a handful of statements in favor, including one from Heather Torgerson, a brain cancer survivor, who used and continues to use marijuana, illegally, during her chemotherapy treatment. She now chairs the campaign for Proposition 203.

The arguments come as legislative budget staffers figure that 39,600 Arizonans are likely to have the medical marijuana cards by 2013, with another 26,400 people licensed by the state as caregivers.

Humble said his decision has nothing to do with his feelings about marijuana. He even admitted to having inhaled "in my youth' when he was a student at Northern Arizona University in the late 1970s.

But he said the initiative is based on the flawed premise about what marijuana can and cannot do. And the result, he said, is likely to be abuse of the law, both by individuals who want legal access to marijuana and physicians who may, for whatever reason, be less than attentive to what will really help their patients.

The measure, being financed by the national Marijuana Policy Project would allow patients who get a written "recommendation' from a physician to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from state regulated non-profit dispensaries.

The list of conditions that would permit such a recommendation include HIV, AIDS, Crohn's Disease and Hepatitis C. And the law would permit the legal use of marijuana to treat various symptoms of diseases including nausea, wasting syndrome and muscle spasms.

What worries Humble is the catch-all of "severe and chronic' pain.

"By opening it up to chronic pain, what you're really doing is letting a bunch of people through the door that are really applying for the cards for other reasons,' Humble said. He said that's what happened in Colorado, where three fourths of the cards issued there are for pain.

What makes him believe not everyone needs it, Humble explained, is that the vast majority of Colorado residents in that category are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, ages where he said that kind of pain should not be prevalent.

He said his counterpart in Montana reported a similar pattern.

Humble said he cleared taking a public position on the measure with the governor's office.

"I felt it was kind of my job, in the position I'm currently in, to educate the voters about, in the end, what's most likely going to happen if this passes,' he said.

"There would be a few hundred people that may benefit every year,' Humble said.

"But, in exchange, we'll be giving tens of thousands of medical marijuana cards to people to manage their pain,' he continued. "And it's not an effective pain management strategy.'

That got an argument from Andrew Myers, manager of the Proposition 203 campaign. He said there are studies which show that marijuana can be useful in reducing pain.

Myers said what Humble fails to say is that the alternative for many people would be much more addictive and dangerous drugs, like OxyContin and other opiates.

"What he's basically saying is he would rather have patients take narcotics than take marijuana,' Myers said.

But Humble said that's not true.

He said while narcotics are one tool in the arsenal of fighting pain, doctors have an entire range, starting with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen. Humble also said there is ample research for other alternatives including acupuncture and biofeedback.

Humble said the potential for abuse is underlined by the fact that an corporation has been set up called Colorado Medical Marijuana which says it has doctors on site specializing in marijuana recommendations.

"They talk about how easy they can make it for you to get your marijuana card,' he said. That, according to the company's web site, includes same-day appointments.