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July 8, 2008 -- Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)

OpEd: Medical Marijuana Is Needed By Seriously Ill Patients

By Allison Bigelow and Gregory Carter, MD

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The federal government is waging war on some of our most vulnerable citizens, who Washington voters have acted to protect. Soon, our congressional representatives will have the chance to stand up for those people -- seriously ill patients who need medical marijuana.

This is an issue we both know personally. One of us is a physician and researcher specializing in rehabilitation medicine and neuromuscular diseases such as ALS ("Lou Gehrig's disease"). The other is a cancer survivor who got through the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy with the help of marijuana, and who has again found relief with marijuana from the chronic pain caused by injuries in a car accident.

We have seen that medical marijuana safely helps some patients who get no relief from conventional medications. Washington voters did the right thing when we passed our medical marijuana law a decade ago. A dozen states now have similar laws, and none have been repealed.

Meanwhile, medical community support continues to solidify. New studies have documented marijuana's ability to relieve nerve pain caused by HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other conditions. In February, the American College of Physicians -- representing 124,000 oncologists, neurologists and other doctors of internal medicine -- released a position paper declaring that the scientific evidence "supports the use of medical marijuana in certain conditions."

The ACP specifically called on the federal government to reclassify marijuana to permit medical use, but our government simply refuses. Federal officials have arrested patients and caregivers who were following state medical marijuana laws, and could make more such arrests any time.

That's why Congress must act.

In its 2005 case, Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court punted the issue to Congress. The court declined to change the status quo, under which patients protected by state law can still face federal prosecution. But Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, went out of his way to note that patients Angel Raich and Diane Monson had made "strong arguments that they will suffer irreparable harm, because, despite a congressional finding to the contrary, marijuana does have valid therapeutic purposes." He pointedly expressing hope that Raich, Monson and their supporters "may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."

That chance will come this month.

When the appropriations bill that funds the Justice Department reaches the House floor, an amendment will be offered that seeks to bar the department from using any of its money to attack medical marijuana patients in states where medical use is legal. Called the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment after sponsors Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the amendment has been proposed in each of the past several sessions and has steadily gained support.

Washington's representatives have been oddly inconsistent. Reps. Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott have been supporters every year, while Dave Reichert has voted no since he joined Congress in 2005. Reps. Rick Larsen, Norm Dicks and Adam Smith have all voted yes at least twice, but Larsen switched to no in 2005 and Smith voted no last year.

Perhaps they remember how well "I voted for it before I voted against it" worked for Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

But the tide is turning. The medical community is increasingly united, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama says it's time to end the federal war on state medical marijuana laws.

That's encouraging, but we don't need to wait for a new president. Washington's congressional representatives should stand up for Washington patients and support the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment.

MapINC Alert: Please Contact Your Congressperson at

Allison Bigelow lives in Clear Lake. Gregory Carter, M.D., M.S., is specialist in electrodiagnostic and neuromuscular medicine and a professor on the clinical faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.

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