Local patients push for new laws. Will Wisconsin be 19th state to legalize?
13 Jan, 2013
Weed war: The fight to get high
Local patients push for new laws. Will WI be 19th state to legalize?
Only two things can ease the near-constant pain from osteoarthritis that Tomahawk’s Eric Orcutt suffers through every day: morphine and marijuana.
To get one, he had to promise to give up the other, and when he failed to keep that promise, he faced a harsh truth. He lost his doctor-prescribed medication and suddenly needed to choose between living with debilitating daily pain or breaking the law to get the other drug that can help him.
The 36-year-old Air Force veteran and Nicolet College student suffers not just from arthritis but also post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Seeking treatment for all that ails him, Orcutt ended up in the pain clinic of the Veterans Administration hospital in Rhinelander, where he was required to sign a contract agreeing to abstain from all illegal drugs in order to get his morphine — something administrators check with regular drug screens. One positive drug test, Orcutt said, and you’re out of the program.
A few months ago, Orcutt said, he didn’t order his package morphine from the VA in time, so the drugs arrived after he already had run out of his current supply. Orcutt said he smoked pot to ease his pain — and failed his next urinalysis at the clinic.
Now, he’s out of the program, and no longer qualifies to get the morphine he insists he needs to function. Orcutt said he doesn’t want to break the law, so he’s seriously considering moving to Michigan, where medical marijuana has been legal for more than four years. But first, he’s joined a movement that aims to change marijuana laws in Wisconsin to what Orcutt calls “more reasonable levels.”
“I could drink all day long and still get my morphine,” Orcutt said. “I could drink and drive, for that matter. The fact that drinking is legal and perfectly fine with the VA but smoking (pot) isn’t, that makes no sense to me whatsoever. It’s ridiculous.”
Orcutt is one of hundreds of pro-pot activists expected to converge on our state’s capitol Wednesday for Marijuana Law Reform Lobby Day. The rally, organized by the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, is an effort to convince lawmakers that legalization and regulation of the marijuana industry would be beneficial to the state, bringing additional revenue to the state’s cash-strapped budget. Ultimately, the group aims to persuade state legislators to propose a ballot for voters to have their say in the marijuana issue.
A climate of change
Marijuana proponents say recent legislation changes in Colorado and Washington, legalizing pot for recreational use, give them hope that they’re at a turning point in America’s history. Pot now has been legalized, in one form or another, in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
But there’s a hitch. Growing, selling and possessing marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the federal government is reviewing options in both Washington and Colorado. President Barack Obama even weighed in on the issue in December, when he told ABC’s Barbara Walters that the federal government has more important things to do than go after recreational marijuana users.
For Jay Selthofner, Obama’s comments are good news and a sign of things to come. Selthofner, 40, of Green Lake is the co-founder and treasurer of the northern Wisconsin branch of NORML, a group that regularly meets in Appleton to discuss pot-legalization strategies.
For Selthofner, lobbying for the drug has become a full-time job. He often helps those whom he thinks could benefit from marijuana use to relocate to nearby states such as Michigan, where the drug is legal for medicinal purposes. Selthofner said Obama’s comments are an example of evolving attitudes about marijuana, both locally and globally.
“Change is in the air,” Selthofner said. “It’s clear more people are pushing for legalization, more people support it. In Wisconsin, really, we’re just one strong voice away from making it happen here.”
The sudden surge in discussions about marijuana could point toward an abrupt end to the prohibition on pot, pro-marijuana lobbyists say. Some, like Selthofner, point to similarities with end of alcohol prohibition in America in the early 20th century, when the federal government decided to stop enforcing the ban on alcohol after states, one by one, began to decline prosecuting people who consumed alcohol. Orcutt thinks it’s only a matter of time before that happens here.
“In Dane County, they don’t even prosecute possession anymore,” Orcutt said. “They have bigger fish to fry. What does that tell you?”
Michelle Marchek, a paralegal at the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, confirmed that Dane County hasn’t prosecuted simple marijuana possession cases involving less than 25 grams — about an ounce — of pot since 2007. Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said in a memo issued to all Dane County police chiefs that the change in policy wasn’t an effort to decriminalize marijuana, merely recognition of limited resources and priorities for the office.
Legalization and reform
Some of the people pushing for law reform aren’t prototypical pot heads.
Ann Marschon, 51, a homemaker who lives in Merrill, said she bought marijuana from a friend when her mother was dying of cancer to help stimulate her mother’s appetite.
“I made her a shake using the leaves, and it did help her eat and regain her strength for a time,” Marschon said. “I was desperate to save her at that point, and I would have tried anything. And I consider myself a law-abiding citizen.”
Marschon thinks she shouldn’t have had to break the law to get help for her mother, though she doesn’t think Wisconsin will legalize the drug anytime soon, especially with a Republican governor in office.
Selthofner, though, said marijuana legalization is not a partisan issue.
“The right piece of legislation is out there that will have both sides of the aisle supporting it,” Selthofner said. “I fear more that bipartisan politics and power struggles will make the marijuana issue a non-issue, once again.”
Selthofner said that while NORML members would like to see complete decriminalization of marijuana, he and other members are hopeful for any change to laws he sees as overly restrictive and unfair.
“If the will of the people means anything, the marijuana laws should be reformed in some way, shape or form. Even removing the automatic felony for second offense is reform. Not legalization, but reform,” Selthofner said.
The legal debate
Activists such as Orcutt and Selthofner insist marijuana is a safe, effective drug that should be available to anyone who needs it. But some police aren’t so sure.
Everest Metro Police Chief Wally Sparks said he strongly opposes legalization of marijuana, even for medicinal use, because he thinks it is a “gateway drug” that often leads to experimentation with stronger, more dangerous drugs.
“I see a lot of kids who start out with marijuana, then they move on to other things,” Sparks said. “By legalizing it, we send a message that it’s okay to use drugs. I’d hate to see that happen.”
Sparks said the same can be said for alcohol, the most socially accepted, used and abused drug in American society.
“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous,” Sparks said. “Alcohol is a huge concern for us. Legalizing marijuana would only compound the problem.”
Sparks said law enforcement officials are concerned about drivers who take the wheel after smoking, something he said is “extremely dangerous.”
“If we legalize marijuana, we’ll see a lot more people driving under the influence,” Sparks said. “It’s just not safe. People push the envelope as it is.”
That may or may not be true. In Michigan, where medical pot was legalized in 2008, Marquette Police Chief Michael Angeli said he he hasn’t seen an increase in impaired driving since the law took effect. His problem with the law is what he described as “vague language” that makes enforcement difficult, even five years after the regulations were adopted.
“We’re still trying to get a better understanding of what’s legal and what’s not,” Angeli said. “The law isn’t clear on who can have it, who can sell it. And everyone wants to profit from it.”
Angeli said his main concern is that the legalization initiative spawned a crop of fly-by-night doctors who come to town, set up “clinics” in hotel rooms, and diagnose patients with medical problems that qualify them for marijuana use.
The docs then sell registration cards to patients for $100 a pop and move on to the next town down the road.
“In my opinion, the law passed under the guise of medical marijuana reform, but it’s really for marijuana users who have morphed themselves into patients,” Angeli said. “Some of us would like to see a change, where people holding these cards are required to have ongoing care.”
The medical debate
June Dahl, a former professor of pharmacology and current professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said there is no good data that shows marijuana has a significant impact on pain. Dahl, who served on the state’s controlled substances board that promotes appropriate use of controlled substances in Wisconsin, said she thinks people who push for medical marijuana are really attempting to legalize drugs for recreational use.
“There are just too many variables with marijuana,” Dahl said. “I can’t see that (pot) relieves symptoms that can’t be safely relieved by a legal drug.”
Dahl said that while research does not support the theory that marijuana relieves pain, her studies have shown that marijuana can have a calming, relaxing effect that can relieve anxiety.
“Anxiety exacerbates pain, so when someone uses marijuana and can relax, they do feel better,” Dahl said. “Still, marijuana is an illegal drug. That’s the bottom line.”
Dahl said THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can be legally prescribed in capsule form and is approved for the treatment of extreme nausea and vomiting, such as that experienced by chemotherapy patients, and for wasting syndrome associated with HIV/AIDS.
“THC is available by prescription, but there are drugs that work better, in my opinion,” Dahl said.
A rally for change
For Orcutt, there’s more at stake than just the morphine. He already was picked up once in April for possession and paid a $328.50 fine on the misdemeanor charge. Under Wisconsin law, if he’s picked up a second time, he’ll be charged with a felony that could send him to prison. At the very least, he would lose his financial aid and be forced to drop out of school because of federal regulations surrounding drug convictions. As is the case with all convicted felons, he would lose his passport, his right to vote and his right to own a firearm.
Selthofner said he expects hundreds of pro-pot advocates, many of them in situations similar to Orcutt’s, at Wednesdays rally.
“Legalizing marijuana could be very beneficial to the state,” Selthofner said. “A lot of people voted to legalize marijuana in Colorado because they recognized it could bring in new tax dollars for the state. That could happen here, too.”
Selthofner said a proposal for Wisconsin’s Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act was introduced in 2009 by former Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, along with 17 co-sponsors. The measure, which would have decriminalized the use of marijuana for patients with a doctor’s prescription, also would install a medical necessity defense to marijuana-related prosecutions and forfeiture actions, prohibit arrest and prosecution of medical marijuana patients and establish marijuana registry and distribution centers. The bill was defeated in 2012, and no legislation to legalize marijuana now is on the table.
Pocan, who recently was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, did not respond to a request for comment for this story; Erpenbach declined to comment.
Selthofner said members of NORML are hopeful the rally will renew the push for legalization in the state and inspire introduction of a new bill. Meanwhile, Selthofner said, all eyes are on the U.S. Department of Justice as it decides how to handle Colorado and Washington, and whether those states will pave the way for legalized marijuana in Wisconsin and around the country.