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Pot, a balm to some, faces a new hurdle

By Dolores Kong

        The treatment for the cancer spreading throughout David Getchell's body causes nausea and vomiting so severe that the 51- year-old scientist can barely eat.  Only one drug helps: marijuana.
        "It makes life more bearable, and you can hang on and fight," said Getchell, who worked as a pediatric chemist at Massachusetts General Hospital before he became too sick.  "That's why I'm still alive."
        But a bill to allow patients like Getchell to use medical necessity as a legal defense if they are arrested for possessing marijuana, passed early this month by the Legislature, has met unexpected resistance from Gov. Weld.
        Weld has sent the bill back to the Legislature, requesting an amendment that would allow the legal defense only for certified participants in a Department of Public Health therapeutic research program - of which there are none.
        The program, created by a 1991 law, has never enrolled anyone because the federal government has stopped providing a legal supply of medical marijuana, although the state has renewed efforts to get federal approval for supplying marijuana to patients.
        Weld said in an interview that "unlike others, I do think that there's some evidence that marijuana has some value for treating some medical conditions," such as glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, or the side effects of chemotherapy.
        "I just think the bill is just too wide open. The self- diagnosis approach is too wide open," he said.
        Getchell, a fair-skinned redhead diagnosed in 1990 with melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer that resulted from severe sunburn when he was an adolescent, fought hard to get the bill passed.  He said he cannot understand Weld's action, pointing out that in 1992, the governor commuted the sentence of Joseph Hutchins, who was growing and using marijuana so that he could eat despite scleroderma, an incurable disease that hardened his esophagus and made it extremely hard to swallow.
        "What I would want to say to Gov. Weld is that this is an issue of compassion," Getchell said.  "It's not about winning or not winning the drug war.  It's about sick and dying people and a way to help them under medical supervision."
        Rep. Patricia D. Jehlen (D-Somerville), the bill's sponsor and Getchell's state representative, said she did not understand Weld's action either, since legislators have all along incorporated suggestions on the wording from the governor's office.  "All I know is that it doesn't make sense, given what he did with Hutchins," Jehlen said.
        Hutchins has appealed his conviction, but the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1991 that he could not use a medical-necessity defense.  The Legislature pased the current bill to recognize such a defense in Massachusetts, giving patients like Getchell the ability to bring up medical evidence in court, Jehlen said.  She has filed an amendment that she believes would deal with Weld's concerns, but with this year's legislative session over, the bill will have to wait until January.
        Hutchins now lives in Washington state, which recognizes the medical-necessity defense, according to Jon Holmes, a volunteer serving on the drug policy task force of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
        Weld said his thinking has not changed since he commuted Hutchins' sentence, but that the bill as passed does not have safeguards in place to ensure that only those with legitimate medical claims like Hutchins can use the medical-necessity defense.
        "The bill I originally sent back didn't have the word 'doctor' anywhere near it," Weld said.  That suggests anyone arrested for marijuana possession would assert medical necessity "in virtually every case," he said.
        Opponents of the medical use of marijuana have argued that there are legal alternatives to treat pain, nausea and other medical symptoms, and that legalizing just one use of the drug would open the door to marijuana becoming legal overall.  In the early 1990s, the Bush administration stopped taking new applications for a US-run medical marijuana program; only eight persons getting the drug legally through the program are still alive.  The Clinton administration has been unwilling to reopen the program.
        Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier this month filed a bill in Congress to permit doctors once again to prescribe marijuana to patients with certain diseases, said that the political climate in this country appears to be getting in the way of compassionate use of the drug.
        "We are allowing the political impulses to apprea 'tough on drugs' to interfere with alleviating pain and suffering," said Frank, who noted that House Speaker Newt Gingrich had been a cosponsor to a 1982 bill that would also have allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana.
        Dr. Lester Grinspoon - a Harvard psychiatrist whose book, "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine," is available in seven languages - said he believes Weld's amendment dooms the medical use of marijuana in this state.  "It's a cowardly way of vetoing, in my view," Grinspoon said, adding that he does not expect the state public health program ever to get federal approval for a supply.
        David Mulligan, the state public health commissioner, disagreed, saying he is hopeful that within the next year the program can get approval to get a supply from the federal government or to grow its own marijuana under strict security.  The state does not want to jeopardize negotiations by appearing to condone illegal use of marijuana in the meantime, Mulligan said.
        The stat also does not want to use marijuana seized in drug raids for medical purposes, he added, since it might have impurities that could be harmful to those with suppressed immune systems.
        Aside from tying the medical necessity defense to participants in the state public health program, Weld's amendment expands the medical conditions that make patients eligible for the program by adding AIDS and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, Mulligan said.
        Even if the state program were approved, it might not help Rhonda Lemoine, 39, who says she has been using marijuana to treat the chronic pain from muscle spasms and degenerative arthritis of the spine since a car accident in 1991.  Her condition is not one of the eligible medical conditions currently listed by the program.
        "I couldn't work for a long time" with the pain and the loss of appetite, said Lemoine, the medical marijuana coordinator for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, which supports Jehlin's bill.  "I use marijuana as an appetite enhancer, and it helps with the muscle spasms.  I've gone from basically being bedridden to being functioning."
        Lemoine, he husband and her son were arrested last year in an early morning raid at their central Massachusetts home, after an acquaintance who was arrested on crack cocaine charges turned them in as part of a plea bargain.  Lemoine was willing to plead guilty to a charge of possessing an ounce of marijuana, but she had to plead guilty to distribution as well to get charges against her husband dropped, Lemoine said.  Her husband paid a fine, her son got six months' probation and she got a suspended one-year sentence, with probation until February 1996.
        "I want to stay healthy and do whatever I can," said Lemoine, who has been able to open her own business after beginning to use marijuana.  "It's the only law I'm breaking, and I'm trying to change that one."

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