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A Hero Prepares to Betray Us

Vermont Governor Howard Dean is a hero to many gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans for his progressive treatment of his state's civil unions law, but right now all signs are that Gov. Dean is preparing to betray people living with AIDS.
 
 
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To gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is a hero - and deservedly so. When the religious right fought a desperate battle to stop Vermont's civil unions law, Gov. Dean stood firm for what he believed was right. In large part because of this man's courage, same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples under Vermont law.

But right now all signs are that Gov. Dean is preparing to betray our brothers and sisters with AIDS. It is up to us to change his mind.

On March 15 the Vermont House of Representatives passed H645, which would protect seriously ill patients from the possibility of arrest and jail for using medical marijuana with their doctors' recommendation. The 82-59 vote was particularly historic because it marked the first time a Republican-controlled legislative house has passed a medical marijuana law.

This should have been the hardest step, since Vermont's Senate is controlled by the Democrats, who have historically been more open-minded than Republicans about medical marijuana. But Dean is also a Democrat, and a hard-line opponent of any liberalization of marijuana laws, even for medical use. Word around the statehouse is that Dean is leaning on Democratic senators to kill the bill or bottle it up in committee, so that he won't have to veto it.

A veto would be politically inconvenient, since a recent poll showed that three quarters of Vermont voters want to legalize medical marijuana for the seriously ill. But if the bill does pass, a veto by Gov. Dean is considered a strong possibility.

That would be a tragedy for Vermonters with AIDS or other serious illnesses. In our community, we have seen the benefits of medical marijuana again and again. We've seen it help people with wasting syndrome eat enough to stay alive. More recently, marijuana has helped thousands cope with the nausea and lack of appetite that is often caused by the unforgiving anti-HIV drug cocktails they must take to keep their virus in check.

My friend Mary is typical. After a dozen years of fighting HIV she says bluntly, "I'm alive because of medical marijuana." Without it, the side effects of her medications would be intolerable.

Mary is lucky: She lives in California, which legalized medical use of marijuana in 1996. But last October federal agents shut down the medical cannabis co-op where Mary received her supply safely. Until she found a safe alternative source she had to do without - and lost 12 pounds in three weeks.

As the full-page ad that appeared in the March 6 New York Times showed, medical marijuana is no longer a fringe issue. It is supported by everyone from Walter Cronkite to the American Public Health Association, not to mention the National Association of People With AIDS and such esteemed physicians as former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders and noted AIDS researcher Dr. Michael Saag.

Gov. Dean is a physician himself. He should listen to the voices of his colleagues as well as those of the sick and the people who care for them. He must remember the ancient physician's credo: First, do no harm. Killing H645, whether it's done by public veto or private stealth, would do immense harm.

Please write to: Governor Howard Dean, M.D. 109 State Street, Pavilion Montpelier, VT 05609-0101. You can send also your letter by fax to 802-828-3339, or visit www.mpp.org/states/site/index for more information.

Bruce Mirken, Acting Director of Communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, is a longtime health journalist who has covered HIV/AIDS research and policy for many publications.