Montel Williams

MS Sufferer Montel Williams Makes the Case for Medical Pot

Editor's note: Connecticut may become the 13th state in the country to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. After legislation was passed in the state legislature this month, it is now up to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. What follows is a letter of support from Montel Williams.

Dear Governor Rell,

I'm writing you today to ask for your support for HB 6715, the Compassionate Use Act. This is an important piece of legislation that should become law.

Outside my work as a talk-show host, I have for several years spoken out about my use of medical marijuana for the pain caused by multiple sclerosis. That surprised a few people, but recent research has proven that I was right -- right about marijuana's medical benefits and right about how urgent it is for states such as Connecticut to change their laws so that sick people aren't treated as criminals.

Back in March, I came to Hartford to participate in a press conference with patients, legislators and caregivers, and all of us shared powerful personal stories about what this legislation really means. It was a powerful experience. The bipartisan support for this legislation is extraordinary, and is indicative of the moral urgency behind this issue.

If you see me on television, I look healthy. What you don't see is the mind-numbing pain searing through my legs like hot pokers.

My doctors wrote me prescriptions for some of the strongest painkillers available. I took Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin on a regular basis -- knowingly risking overdose just trying to make the pain bearable. But these powerful, expensive drugs brought me no relief. I couldn't sleep. I was agitated, my legs kicked involuntarily in bed, and the pain was so bad I found myself crying in the middle of the night.

All these heavy-duty narcotics made me almost incoherent. I couldn't take them when I had to work, because they turned me into a zombie. Worse, all of these drugs are highly addictive, and one thing I knew was that I didn't want to become a junkie. When someone suggested I try marijuana, I was skeptical -- but desperate. To my amazement, it worked when these other legal drugs failed. Three puffs and within minutes the excruciating pain in my legs subsided. I had my first restful sleep in months.

I am not alone. A new study from the University of California, published Feb. 13 in the highly regarded medical journal Neurology, leaves no doubt about that. You see, people with MS suffer from a particular type of pain called neuropathic pain -- pain caused by damage to the nerves. It's common in MS, but also in many other illnesses, including diabetes and HIV/AIDS. It's typically a burning or stabbing sensation, and conventional pain drugs don't help much, whatever the specific illness.

The new study, conducted by Dr. Donald Abrams, looked at neuropathic pain in HIV/AIDS patients. About one-third of people with HIV eventually suffer this kind of pain, and there are no FDA-approved treatments. For some, it gets so bad that they can't walk. This was what is known as a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, the "gold standard" of medical research. And marijuana worked.

The very first marijuana cigarette reduced the pain by an average of 72 percent, without serious side effects. What makes this even more impressive is that U.S. researchers studying marijuana are required to use marijuana supplied by the federal government -- marijuana that is famous for being weak and of poor quality. So there is every reason to believe that studies such as this one underestimate the potential relief that high-quality marijuana could provide.

Medical marijuana has allowed me to live a productive, fruitful life despite having multiple sclerosis. Many thousands of others all over this country -- less well-known than me but whose stories are just as real -- have experienced the same thing.

The U.S. government knows marijuana works as a medicine. Our government actually provides medical marijuana each month to five patients in a program that started about 25 years ago but was closed to new patients in 1992. One of the patients in that program, Florida stockbroker Irvin Rosenfeld, was a guest on my show two years ago.

But 38 states -- including Connecticut -- still subject patients with illnesses such as MS, cancer or HIV/AIDS to arrest and jail for using medical marijuana, even if their doctor has recommended it. It's long past time for that to change.

Here in Connecticut, a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill to protect patients like me from arrest and jail for using medical marijuana when it's recommended by a doctor.

Similar laws are working well in 12 states right now, with New Mexico passing its law just a few months ago. These laws work, Governor. And public safety has not been an issue --according to professor Mitch Earlywine at the State University of New York, states with medical marijuana laws have actually seen a decrease in marijuana use by adolescents.

Governor, this bill deserves your support. Sick people shouldn't be treated as criminals.

Sincerely yours,
Montel Williams

Protect Patients From Politics

You may know me as a television talk-show host, but here in 40 states, I am also a criminal. My crime? Using the medicine that has allowed me to lead a normal life, despite having multiple sclerosis: medical marijuana.

Being diagnosed with MS in 1999 felt like a death sentence. I doubted my ability to function as a father, son, brother, friend, talk-show host and producer. I honestly couldn't see a future. I had always taken excellent care of my body; I'd worked out, followed a healthy diet and looked the picture of health. What no one could see was the mind-numbing pain that seared through my legs, as if I were being stabbed with hot pokers.

My doctors wrote me prescriptions for some of the strongest painkillers available. I took Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin on a regular basis, two at a time, every three or four hours. I was knowingly risking overdose just trying to make the pain bearable. In my desperation, I even tried morphine. Yet these powerful, expensive drugs brought no relief.

I couldn't sleep. I was agitated; my legs kicked involuntarily in bed, and the pain was so bad I found myself crying in the middle of the night. And all these heavy-duty narcotics made me nearly incoherent; I couldn't take them when I had to work because they turned me into a zombie. Worse, these drugs are all highly addictive. I did not want to become a junkie, wasted and out of control. I spiraled deeper into a black hole of depression.

In Climbing Higher, my book on living with MS, I write in detail about the severe mental and physical pain that I experienced. It was so bad that I twice attempted suicide.

Finally, someone suggested that I try smoking a little marijuana before going to bed, saying that it might help me fall asleep. Skeptical but desperate, I tried it. Three puffs and within minutes the excruciating pain in my legs subsided. I had my first restful sleep in months. The effect was miraculous.

But the federal government classifies marijuana in the same category as LSD, PCP and heroin -- considered unsafe to use even under medical supervision. Physicians are allowed to prescribe cocaine, morphine and methamphetamine, but not marijuana.

Ninety-nine percent of marijuana arrests are made by local police, under state law -- but the states can decide not to arrest medical-marijuana patients. Ten states now protect medical-marijuana patients from arrest, the latest being Montana, whose medical-marijuana law passed in November with 62 percent of the vote. Yet I'm still a criminal.

Medical and public-health organizations agree that medical marijuana can be beneficial. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, released a study commissioned by the White House that had found marijuana effective in combating pain, nausea and other symptoms afflicting patients with MS, cancer and other illnesses. The American Public Health Association's policy statement summarizes the extensive research showing marijuana's effectiveness, and adds: "Marijuana has an extremely wide acute margin of safety for use under medical supervision. ... Greater harm is caused by the consequences of its prohibition than possible risks of medicinal use."

Patients struggling for their lives against such illnesses as MS, cancer and AIDS should not be treated as criminals. We need to get beyond politics. We need more research into marijuana's medicinal effects, and we should heed the research already available. The federal government should change marijuana's classification so that physicians can prescribe it.

But while we wait for the federal government to act -- which, sadly, may take some time -- the states should take action to protect patients.

Because of medical marijuana, I am still alive -- and leading a far more fruitful life than before. I am not alone. There are thousands of patients like me, and we should not be treated as criminals.

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