When Chris Bright learned he would probably die of a brain tumor, he smoked a joint. He lit up twice a day to cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments he received about two years ago. Bright said the marijuana stimulated his appetite. It allowed him to sleep. It dulled his pain and quelled his nausea.
“If it wasn’t for cannabis, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said Bright, who underwent a life-saving operation to remove the tumor in May 2012.
But the 51-year-old Wilbur-by-the-Sea resident was breaking the law in Florida, and he continues to break the law on a daily basis, smoking black-market marijuana to alleviate neuropathic pain and glaucoma while also using a synthetic version of cannabis, called nabilone, legally available in pill form.
Efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Florida — buoyed by the support of advocates like Bright and a high-profile lawyer blitzing the airwaves with supportive ads — are picking up steam as petitioners seek to collect 700,000 signatures by early next year to place a constitutional referendum on the ballot for the 2014 election.
But law enforcement groups, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Medical Association have opposed the ballot initiative and say they aren’t convinced the amendment as written will be good for the state. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday that the ballot language would mislead voters. In his garage this week, Bright inhaled while flipping through images on his computer promoting the benefits of cannabis. He says the drug provides immediate relief to burning and numbness in his face that stems from nerve damage caused by the tumor.
“This is bonus time,” he said, while recalling how close he came to death. “I didn’t think I’d be here.”
WONDER DRUG or ‘A STEP BACKWARDS’?
Dr. Frank Farmer, an Ormond Beach resident who practices internal medicine, wrestled with the explosion of pill mills pumping out oxycodone and painkillers during his tenure as Florida surgeon general from May 2011 to March 2012. He’s worried legalized medical marijuana will produce a similar situation where the drug becomes widely available from unregulated dispensaries.
“I am concerned that this is a step backwards,” he said. “I have reservations that this may lead to further use of more addictive drugs and more dangerous drugs.”
One of the primary backers of medical marijuana is John Morgan, an influential Central Florida attorney known for his “For the People” ads. He is chairing an organization called People United for Medical Marijuana that is leading efforts to place the matter before voters. Tallahassee lawmakers have ignored the public’s overwhelming support for medical marijuana, he said.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 82 percent of Floridians would support the medical marijuana amendment if it were on the ballot today.
Morgan said he witnessed what marijuana could do when his father used it while coping with terminal esophageal cancer, and his quadriplegic brother also smokes it to help with spasms and phantom pain. “This is a plant that has been put into nature by God for us to take care of ourselves,” he said, adding that 400,000 signatures have been collected but not necessarily verified yet. “I don’t know why it works, but it does. I don’t know why aloe works, but it does. I don’t know why water quenches thirst, but it does.”
As of Thursday, 136,458 signatures — including 5,085 from Volusia and Flagler counties — had been validated by the Florida Division of Elections, according to a state website. Morgan said he is confident medical marijuana won’t result in a “free-for-all where people start setting up tents and it’s Woodstock statewide.”
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson views it differently and is worried medical marijuana will complicate his efforts to stamp out drug abuse. His department doesn’t give leniency to marijuana smokers who claim to be using the drug for medicinal purposes.
“We go after them all the way around,” Johnson said. “If someone is found with misdemeanor amounts, they are charged, but we are more interested in the dealers.”
While numerous testimonies tout the benefits of marijuana in treating a variety of ailments, research is limited on the drug’s medicinal benefits, side effects and effectiveness when compared to more traditional treatment methods. Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug — meaning it is viewed as having no known medical use and a high potential for abuse — has stymied research efforts. Other drugs falling into this category include heroin, LSD and mescaline.
Dr. Bruce Goldberger, director of forensic medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, said he doesn’t dispute that marijuana can alleviate pain and suffering, but he thinks the potential for abuse and misuse outweighs the benefits. As a toxicologist, Goldberger said he’s in the trenches and sees firsthand how marijuana intoxication can lead to fatal car wrecks and workplace accidents — deaths he thinks will only increase if restrictions on marijuana are loosened. “There are true divergent sides,” he said. “One side believes the science is perfectly clear that the use of medical marijuana is a safe, reliable, reasonable medication to treat certain ailments. The other side feels the science is lacking.”
Only two synthetic versions of cannabis in pill form have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting in patients who don’t respond to standard treatments.
Supporters say the anecdotal evidence is clear that marijuana is effective in alleviating suffering, and smoking is often a superior delivery method that better controls dosage than synthetic versions of the drug.
State Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach Shores, who has battled brain cancer for several years, said he wants to gather more facts before taking a stance on the issue. He’s heard recently from about 10 to 15 constituents asking him to support medical marijuana, which he said is a relatively high number of comments for an issue.
While Hood is still on the fence, Bright’s mind is made up. “The prohibitionists are making their last arguments,” said Bright, a self-described Ron Paul Republican. “Basically, you are watching a dinosaur die.”
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