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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Medical Marijuana Advocates Won’t Wait

Wisconsin could legalize pot for chronically ill people

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In November 2008, 63% of Michigan voters made medical marijuana legal in that state—a significant victory, when you consider that the ballot measure won in each and every county and generated more support than Barack Obama. More tellingly, that robust majority of voters approved a measure that the Michigan Legislature had previously rejected.

Since the program’s implementation this spring, more than 6,000 Michigan residents have signed up for the program, either as a patient or a caregiver. Patients obtain a recommendation from their doctor, pay $100 (or $25, if the patient lives below the poverty line) for a state-issued ID card, and can purchase marijuana from a state-licensed dealer or grow his or her own plants (up to 12 per patient).

Tim Beck, head of the Michigan chapter of Americans for Safe Access, said that there’s been no “reefer madness”-style chaos or corruption of kids. Instead, the program has allowed seriously ill Michigan residents to safely access medicine that had formerly been driven underground.

“It has been a godsend,” Beck said.

The People Are Ahead of Their Politicians

Wisconsin residents, though, aren't that fortunate, even though credible polling shows that 80% support implementing a medical marijuana program in this state.

“It's more popular than any politician,” said Gary Storck, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

But Wisconsin voters don’t have the ability to enact a medical marijuana law via a voter referendum, as Michigan residents did. That can be done at the local level, creating a patchwork of programs. Or an advisory referendum can be placed on a statewide ballot, but that would not necessarily lead to legislation.

Wisconsin voters can approve amendments to the state Constitution, however, but that would require having the question approved by two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature before it could be put on the ballot.

Storck said seriously or terminally ill patients who need immediate relief can't wait another two years.

 “They just don’t have that time,” he said.

That’s why medical marijuana advocates are pushing hard for the passage of the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) in the state Assembly and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) in the state Senate.

The legislation is based on Michigan’s model, and would strictly regulate who could legally obtain or provide medical marijuana within the state. Patients with debilitating medical conditions—such as cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS or HIV, seizures, severe pain or nausea—could participate in the program with a doctor’s approval and payment of up to $150 for the state registry and an ID card.

“I’ve heard from people in my district and around the state that when they are dealing with their cancer or MS or glaucoma, the only bit of relief that they find from their chemo or their illness is marijuana,” said Erpenbach, who chairs the Senate Health Committee. “It’s something the medical community is a little mixed on, but [medical marijuana] helps to ease the pain, and the state shouldn’t stand in the way or make someone a criminal if they’re looking to it for medical reasons.”

Despite strong public support, previous versions of the bill have died in committee, and were opposed by the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association (but supported by the Wisconsin Nurses Association).

“This is one of those issues where the people are clearly way ahead of their legislators,” Pocan said.

Advocates are hoping that with Democrats controlling both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, they’ll get more support than they did when Republicans controlled at least one house of the state Legislature.

Jeff Peterson, head of the Milwaukee area chapter of NORML, said state lawmakers must pass this bill simply because it’s the humane thing to do for seriously ill people with chronic pain.

“I have great anger that people are being denied the use of something that could help them,” Peterson said.

A Green Economy

While Wisconsin doesn’t have a medical marijuana law on the books it falls further behind popular opinion and advanced programs in other states. Even the Obama administration announced that it would respect state laws regarding medical marijuana. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would stop using federal resources to prosecute seriously ill patients and their caregivers.

Fourteen states have legal, regulated medical marijuana programs, and advocates in another dozen are trying to launch programs. California voters were the first in the nation to approve medical marijuana, in 1996, with 56% support. Voter initiatives then passed in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, while programs were approved by state lawmakers in Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont. The legislative measures, like the voter referendums, usually win by a wide margin.

California, not surprisingly, has the most developed medical marijuana program, with an estimated 400,000 patients, and a flourishing “cannabusiness” that includes 2,100 dispensaries, co-ops, clinics and delivery services.

California medical marijuana patients can choose from specific strains of pot that are best able to address their illness, as well as cannabis-infused pastry, cooking oil, skin cream, soap, lozenges, lollipops, capsules and tinctures.

“It’s a good, green business that provides jobs,” NORML’s Storck said.

Now comfortable with the program, California residents and lawmakers are moving toward making medical marijuana part of the state’s economy.

After approval by 80% of city voters, Oakland now taxes sales of marijuana at dispensaries, which will bring in an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 in its first year.

There’s also a proposal to tax marijuana throughout California, much like it taxes alcohol, which would generate up to $1.3 billion in taxes annually for that cash-strapped state.

In fact, when you crunch the numbers, legalization and taxation of marijuana makes sense during an economic downturn. Legalization of pot nationwide would generate about $7 billion in taxes and decrease law enforcement costs by $13.5 billion, according to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

While Congress is unlikely to decriminalize marijuana anytime soon, the voters seem to be in favor of it. A Zogby poll of voters in May found that 52% supported treating marijuana as a legal, taxed, regulated substance, with 37% opposed.

While Wisconsin may be a long way from legalizing pot for all adults, Erpenbach said he is hopeful about the medical marijuana bill’s prospects in the state Legislature.

“The people of this state are compassionate,” Erpenbach said.