Thursday, January 23, 2003

Sufferers plead for medical pot

By Matt Smith

Capitol Bureau

ALBANY - Bruce Dunn of Otsego County has lived in chronic pain since nearly being crushed in a car accident more than 14 years ago.

The spinal cord injury he suffered left the nerves in his neck damaged severely. The muscles in his upper back, meanwhile, have deteriorated to the point where you can see bone through his shirt when he turns around. And often, he hurts so bad that he finds it hard to sit more than 10 minutes at a time.

Since his 1988 crash, Dunn has tried an array of powerful prescribed medications to relieve his pain. Some drugs simply didn't work. Others left him sick.

Finally, he turned to marijuana.

"I'm not sure how it works, or why," Dunn said. "But for me, it's the best medication I've come across."

Dunn came to the state Capitol on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to legalize the medical use of marijuana. He was joined by AIDS patients, health professionals and activists who testified before an Assembly Health Committee panel on benefits marijuana can provide to those suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses.

"I don't like admitting that I commit a crime," said Dunn, whose hometown would not be disclosed by the Assembly Committee on Wednesday. "I don't like living as a criminal and I don't deserve to be a criminal."

Since 1997, there has been legislation in the Democrat-controlled Assembly that would legalize the possession, sale, delivery and distribution of marijuana for medical use to certified patients.

And technically, the state already has a medical marijuana law on the books. Since 1980, in fact, New York has doled out some 6,000 government-supplied joints to patients.

The federal government, however, effectively shut the program down in 1989 when it approved Marinol, a synthetic pill form of THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana.

Ann Purchase, a registered nurse who testified before lawmakers Wednesday, said the problem is some patients respond negatively to Marinol, as well as other anti-nausea and pain-relief medications.

The elderly in particular, she said, don't do well with Marinol and often suffer hallucinations because the drug is so concentrated.

Mark Hayes, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, said Marinol "kicks in hard," often leaving patients in a near-sedated state for hours. Smoking marijuana, he added, has been the only way he's been able to control side effects such as vomiting and hives suffered as a result of the drug "cocktail" he must take to combat his HIV.

Since its introduction more than five years ago, legislation to legalize medical marijuana has gained support in the Assembly.

However, no bill has been introduced in the Republican-controlled state Senate. A spokesman for the upper house Wednesday declined comment on the issue.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, have been a primary opponent to legalizing the medical use of marijuana, claiming such a law would compromise their ability to fight illegal use of the drug.

But Vincent Marrone of New Yorkers for Compassionate Care said there has been no evidence of that happening in the eight states throughout the country that have medical marijuana laws on the books.