Austin lawmaker says timing right for medical marijuana bill


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DAVID GARDNER

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on December 6, 2012 at 7:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 6 at 7:40 PM

AUSTIN -- At 40 years old, Vincent Lopez has spent more than half of his life in a wheelchair, dealing with the constant pain of muscular dystrophy since the age of 17.

"For the last 22 years I've experienced symptoms of chronic back pain, joint pain, trouble eating and trouble sleeping," Lopez told KVUE at his North Austin home. "One would have to go through it to truly understand. Illness truly is an act of consumption."

After trying countless drugs that Lopez says only made him sicker and took away his appetite, he turned to marijuana as medicine.

"It's not a cure, but it's more of an alleviator to numb an individual to that pain so that pain doesn't dictate or override their day, override their routine, which is typically what pain does," said Lopez. "It seems to stimulate appetite. It seems to alleviate my spasms, alleviate my muscle stiffness, alleviate the pain throughout my back that I feel daily, and if anything it does, it helps me just get on about my day in the most comfort I can possibly be in."

From patient to advocate, Lopez has spent the last two year volunteering as director of patient outreach for the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Lopez says much of his work is creating an outlet for patients to step out of the "marijuana closet," and that many who use marijuana to cope with pain end up adding fear of arrest to the stress of dealing with a chronic illness.

"We're not talking recreational use, we're not talking abuse, we're talking medical need, and there's nothing greater than that," said Lopez. "One thing we need to understand is that there are no cures for these conditions, and prescription medications have proven to be harmful in so many ways. Cannabis provides an alternative answer away from side effects that harm other organs of our bodies. Cannabis is a natural substance."

While citizens in the states of Washington and Colorado have celebrated newly-passed laws decriminalizing marijuana, at least 17 states allow some form of medical marijuana use. Advocates of similar legislation in Texas say it's a sign of an evolving conversation regarding the drug's potential medicinal uses.

"I think it does reflect a changing attitude," said State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin), who has tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation concerning medical marijuana in the past and plans on submitting a new bill in the upcoming 83rd Texas Legislature. "I think those combine to enhance the chances that we'll move forward finally with this strictly medicinal marijuana bill."

"We're trying to create a situation where a person with a bona fide medical condition (AIDS, cancer, MS, Parkinson's) following a recommendation from a doctor could use marijuana for medicinal purposes, and if arrested could go before a judge and say, 'I'm not a criminal. I'm sick, this helps me.' And the judge could say, 'Go home,'" Naishtat explained in an interview with KVUE.

For years, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has repeatedly testified that marijuana, particularly when smoked, is neither safe nor effective as a drug.

"Smoked marijuana does not meet existing standards of safety and efficacy for modern medicine," ONDCP Deputy Director for State and Local Affairs Scott Burns testified while addressing a medical marijuana initiative in Michigan in 2006. "Recognized medications have been determined to be only safe after properly rigorous scientific analysis, not political pressure, and not deal making."

Lopez argues that marijuana is not proven addictive, and says medical marijuana is the victim of a propaganda campaign aimed to scare people away from a conversation.

"We are already sentenced by our conditions. We cannot escape them, we cannot put them on the shelf, and we can't just turn away from them," said Lopez. "Regardless of medical cannabis or not, we still have to face our trial, and when we see an answer that can alleviate the pains of that trial, then it's very much worth our effort to fight for it."

Naishtat attributes the lack of success of previous medical marijuana legislation to a misunderstanding that the bill would create a legal market or legalize marijuana. Naishtat says it would not, rather the legislation would provide an affirmative defense for patients using marijuana as medicine.

"We know that medicinal marijuana if used properly works. We will have people come and testify how it helps them live, how it helps them to work," said Naishtat. "This also would send a strong message to law enforcement throughout Texas that they shouldn't mess with people who are obviously sick. They should not harass them. They certainly shouldn't arrest them if they're smoking marijuana for medicinal reasons."

"Anything that's in the positive direction is definitely something that I would like to see, and that includes protecting patient rights who are medical marijuana users in the state of Texas," said Lopez. "If we expect to have real compassionate reform, it's going to have to come down to legislators and lawmakers listening to patients and understanding their needs, and anything leads in that direction is a positive step in the right direction."

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