Christine Harrington smokes marijuana. Her husband grows it for her at their Crawford County home, about 35 miles south of La Crosse. But she doesn’t consider herself or her husband to be criminals. She says she smokes it because it eases the cramps, tremors and stomach problems caused by multiple sclerosis.
But last January, when Crawford County sheriff’s deputies got a tip that the Harringtons were growing pot, they executed a search warrant, seized her marijuana and jailed her husband on a felony charge for manufacturing the drug.
John Harrington got off relatively easy; he pleaded to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. But it cost the family of four plenty. Harrington lost his job as a school janitor at a time when the family was facing $10,000 in legal fees.
Under a legislative proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, Christine Harrington’s marijuana use and her husband’s production of the illegal plant might not be a problem. The proposal would allow up to 3 ounces of marijuana or 12 plants to patients whose doctors recommended marijuana for medical reasons. Qualifying users could register with the state Department of Health Services for an identification card, which would allow police to quickly verify that they were legitimate marijuana users. The bill requires distribution centers, referred to as “compassion centers,” to be nonprofit and to pay $5,000 a year for a license.
The bill specifies a number of ailments that would qualify patients to legally use the drug: HIV, cancer, hepatitis C, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress syndrome, to name a few. But it also includes any chronic or debilitating disease that causes wasting away, severe pain, nausea, seizures or muscle spasms as well as “any other medical condition” designated by the state as debilitating.
Patient advocates have been pushing for the law for years, and a number of bills have been proposed in past legislative sessions, but they all went up in smoke.
This time, the bill’s sponsors say, momentum is on their side. Polling, both nationwide and in Wisconsin, shows wide support for medical marijuana. Thirteen states have legalized it, eight in the past five years, and more are considering it. The federal government, which under the Bush administration shut down dispensaries because they ran afoul of federal law, has backed off, giving states a free hand on medical marijuana policy. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle supports it as long as patients are required to get a physician’s approval.
Democrats, who traditionally have been more friendly to easing drug laws than their GOP counterparts, hold sway in both houses of the Legislature, and while Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker have not weighed in, they say they want the debate over medical marijuana to play out.
While most of the states that have legalized medical marijuana have been in the west and the northeast, the idea has gained traction in the Midwest; last year, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana measure. In Minnesota, Republicans joined Democrats this year on a medical marijuana bill that passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
And the American Medical Association has recently supported taking marijuana out of the dangerous-drug classification to pave the way for more medical testing.
“We certainly are seeing a different landscape than we have in previous years,” says state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who introduced the Wisconsin bill with 13 co-sponsors in the Assembly.
While no Republicans have signed on — former Republican Rep. Gregg Underheim, who was a lead sponsor in the past, has left the Assembly — there’s at least one sign that GOP opposition may be softening. Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who as recently as October said he would not back any medical marijuana proposal, says he still opposes it, according to spokeswoman Kimber Liedl, but there is a “but.”
“With the AMA’s recent recommendation to study marijuana further, Scott’s interested in seeing some of the research that will come out of that,” says Liedl.
Pocan says that with polls showing overwhelming support for medical marijuana in Wisconsin and wide support in neighboring states, Republicans have seen the writing on the wall.
“I’m sure they’re hearing from their constituents,” he says. “My guess is where they’re used to just saying no, because that’s kind of what they do when measures come up from Democrats, in this case I think they realize there’s a real price back home to pay by just having an obstructionist agenda.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, has introduced the bill in the Senate with two co-sponsors. Erpenbach chairs the Senate health committee, where the bill will be considered in a combined hearing with the Assembly Public Health Committee on Dec. 15.
But debate on the bill is just beginning.
Erpenbach says he’s seeking support from law enforcement, but so far, associations representing the state’s sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys have not weighed in. A spokesman for Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, says he has not yet reviewed the bill.
“I think the more attention we can draw to it, the more people are going to probably have to take a side on it,” says Erpenbach. “They haven’t really had to necessarily right now simply because it hasn’t been out there yet.”
The bill has the official backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Hospice Organization and Palliative Experts of Wisconsin and the state Epilepsy Foundation. The Wisconsin Nurses Association has backed a similar measure in the past, but officials there did not return calls asking whether they support the current legislation.
The Wisconsin Medical Society opposes the bill, not because it is against the use of cannabis for medical reasons, but because it has concerns about the health effects of smoking it. Advocates counter that alternative methods of using marijuana such as vaporizers, capsules, lozenges, candies and salves don’t harm the lungs.
While the issue of medical marijuana appears headed for its first serious debate in Wisconsin, it has been a long time coming for its advocates.
In 1972, Gary Storck of Madison found that marijuana — advocates prefer the term “cannabis, which they say doesn’t carry the same stigma as marijuana — lessened the pressure in his eyes caused by glaucoma. He also suffers from Noonan Syndrome, a congenital defect that causes heart problems and pain, which he says also is alleviated by marijuana.
But it wasn’t until 1997, when he suffered a serious infection resulting from heart surgery, that he became a dedicated medical marijuana activist. He believes marijuana was instrumental in his recovery, and he has since traveled the country, attending conferences and protests, and lobbying U.S. lawmakers. He used his own money for travel and to print educational materials to hand out at rallies.
“It cost me money, but it’s something I believe in,” says Storck. “I’ve worked this hard on it and I want to get it done.”
Storck is president of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and co-founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet?, a grassroots group dedicated to educating the public about the therapeutic uses of marijuana.
Storck, with fellow activist Mary Powers, spent much of this year lobbying legislators. He says he’s hit more than 80 legislative offices, posting video reports of his efforts on YouTube. Powers — an Army veteran who suffered from cancer, AIDS and hepatitis C — died in October.
Like Storck, other medicinal users of cannabis swear by it, saying it relieves pain, muscle spasms, nausea and a host of other symptoms that are caused by diseases or that are side effects of prescription drugs.
Jacki Rickert has used marijuana for two decades. She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that breaks down the connective tissue of her bones, causing excruciating joint dislocations and often leaving her unable to digest food. At one point, Rickert’s weight had dropped to 68 pounds.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, you look like someone who just walked out of a concentration camp,’” says Rickert, who lives near Eau Claire. “My doctor said: ‘Jacki, if we can’t get weight on you, you will die.’”
After using marijuana, she says, she gained more than 20 pounds. And the pain-reducing effects of the drug allowed her to cut her prescription doses of morphine in half. It also relieved other symptoms such as violent muscle spasms.
Sold on the medicinal benefits, Rickert became an activist, leading other medical marijuana users on a much-publicized 210-mile trek in her wheelchair from her home in Mondovi to the State Capitol in 1997.
In recognition of Rickert’s activism, the proposed state law has been dubbed the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act.
A press conference announcing the legislative effort last week included a number of people who use marijuana for a variety of afflictions, from post-traumatic stress disorder to muscular dystrophy.
Jon Schommer of Racine, who uses a wheelchair as a result of muscular dystrophy, says he tried marijuana as a way to deal with the pain from the disease, and the nausea and itching that are side effects of the prescription methadone he takes.
“Right away I felt how the pain went away,” he says.
If he could get a steady supply, he says, he would probably reduce his methadone doses, which would further cut down on the side effects.
Difficulty acquiring marijuana is a problem for some medical users. Erpenbach says he’s spoken with families who have resorted to looking for it from street dealers. In one case, a family enlisted their son, a high school student, to find marijuana for a parent.
Rickert is no stranger to the problem. After her house was raided by sheriff’s deputies in 2000, she says she didn’t know where to turn. But others came to her aid.
“I’d get a phone call and it would be like, ‘Look under a rock,’ or, ‘Look under something near your doorway,’” she says. “It was amazing.”
There are indications that some in the legal community are concluding that prosecuting people for using medical marijuana is either wrong or a waste of resources.
John Harrington’s defense attorney, John Matousek, is a former Monroe County district attorney. After prosecuting a man who was using marijuana to relieve chronic pain from brain trauma, he says, he had a change of heart.
“I think it’s a tragedy not to allow it for medicinal purposes,” he says.
Crawford County District Attorney Tim Baxter didn’t return calls for comment, but Christine Harrington says he was sensitive to her plight. Baxter agreed to a joint recommendation with John Harrington’s attorney to hand him a light sentence that didn’t include probation, allowing him to avoid potential prison time resulting from probation violations, which would have been a distinct possibility.
Having suffered drastic side effects from the steroid treatment prescribed by her physician — including urinary, bladder, kidney and blood infections — Christine Harrington says she has no intention to stop using marijuana, which she says alleviates her pain and nausea with no side effects.
“I’m obviously willing to break the law to be able to medicate myself,” she says, “because I did go with mainstream medicine and it almost killed me.”
The nationwide push for medical marijuana laws is bolstered by changing public attitudes about the drug.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll in April found 46 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana use outright, up from 22 percent in 1997.
In Wisconsin, a poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization pushing for pro-medical marijuana legislation in several states, and conducted by Chamberlain Research Consultants showed that 75.7 percent of Wisconsinites supported legislation introduced in 2005 to allow patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis or other serious illnesses to use marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s approval. The poll showed support among Republicans and Democrats, and in all age groups.
In a referendum last year in Michigan, the first Midwestern state to legalize medical marijuana, a majority in all 83 counties and 63 percent total supported the measure.
“This is an issue where people are clearly way ahead of the policymakers,” says Pocan.
He adds that his proposal guards against abuse of the law, but critics worry that legalizing medical marijuana would lead to a California-style runaway train.
California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and medical marijuana dispensaries have become common in many cities. Among the conditions listed in the law that qualify patients to use marijuana are “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief,” giving so-called “pot docs” wide discretion in handing out referrals.
It makes for a lucrative industry for doctors, growers and distributors. A recent Associated Press story reported that marijuana dispensaries, which have proliferated in the state’s larger cities since the federal crackdown ended, now outnumber Starbucks outlets in Los Angeles.
Many now believe the genie is out of the bottle — a bill before the California Legislature would legalize pot altogether — and even among some who don’t take a hard line on the marijuana issue, it’s cause for concern.
In Wisconsin, Crawford County Sheriff Jerry Moran, who busted John Harrington, says he doesn’t have a problem with medical marijuana in theory.
“Whatever the law is, that’s what I’ll enforce,” he says.
But he also says he understands why law enforcement associations are mum on the issue. “They probably are feeling the way I feel, that it will be abused.”
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray declined to comment on the current legislation, but District Attorney Brian Blanchard, who has directed his office to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana cases, says he fears legalizing medical marijuana would be a de facto legalization of all marijuana use, leading to more addiction among young people.
“The extreme version that has been used in California might as well just be called decriminalization, which I personally disfavor,” he says.
Blanchard would not comment on the regulatory aspects of the current bill, saying he hasn’t reviewed it.
But Pocan and Erpenbach say they have crafted their proposal with an eye toward preventing abuse by reviewing other state laws, choosing elements that work and omitting those that invite problems.
“I’ve heard it before: ‘This is the first step to legalizing drugs,’” says Erpenbach. “Absolutely not. This is just a huge step to get someone some medicine to help them have a little bit better life.”