California's Dope Vote

Smoking marijuana has been known to cause weirdness, an apt adjective for the legislative battle to legalize its use for alleviating the pain associated with patients with AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis.It's a story involving narcs, law-enforcement lobbyists, conservative Christians, pot activists, open-minded politicians, the medical community and its suffering patients."In a free society, people shouldn't be made criminals for alleviating their pain; that's what fascism does," said state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, the Santa Clara Democrat who is spearheading legislative efforts to legalize pot-smoking for seriously ill patients.In 1995, Vasconcellos won passage of new legislation that would have allowed some patients to smoke cannabis if done so under the strict supervision of an attending physician. Backed by Democrats and a few Republicans, it passed in the Legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who heeded the advice of the state's narcotic officers, law enforcement officials and the Committee on Moral Concerns, a group backed by conservative religious groups.Vasconcellos' latest bill, AB 2933, would put the issue on the ballot and let the state's voters decide. Respected pollsters such as the Field Institute predict passage. But the governor will probably veto the latest bill, too, because he's a "pathetic control freak," said Vasconcellos.The issue may wind up on the ballot anyway. The San Francisco-based Californians for Compassionate Use is working to qualify the issue for the November ballot by collecting 600,000 signatures by April 20. "We stand a chance of making it," said Geo Barnes, one of the organization's campaign workers. Financial donations from some "anonymous" philanthropists have allowed the group to hire professional petitioners.Marijuana legalization activists and other supporters are looking forward to hearings planned for later this month by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. "I felt that there was a legitimate need to look at the medical aspects of the issue," said John Miller, the committee's principal consultant, who added that previous hearings have focused only on criminal aspects.The hearings will spotlight a significant body of medical evidence that suggests pot-smoking alleviates pain and suffering for patients suffering from AIDS, glaucoma, MS and for cancer patients going through chemotherapy treatments.Groups such as the California Academy of Family Physicians and California Nurses Association support the concept. And last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial backing marijuana as medicine. The commentary noted that the 5,000-year medical history of cannabis has been almost forgotten: "Between 1840 and 1900, European and American medical journals published more than 100 articles on the therapeutic use of the drug."But Art Croney, spokesman for the Committee on Moral Concerns, claimed that "the overwhelming number of doctors are opposed to prescribing it." Other studies say that smoking marijuana kills AIDS patients, he added. His organization appears to have a prejudice against the method of ingestion most preferred by sick patients and their physicians. The group claims it's not denying legitimate medicine, because marijuana's active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is already available as a prescription drug called Marinol. Its literature says doctors should not tell patients to: "Go home. Smoke a couple joints. Stay high until you feel better."

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