« More Lies from Our Prez | Main | A Useful Concept »

November 16, 2008

A Chance for Change?

Dying to Get High,” by academics from opposite coasts: Maine Sociologist Wendy Chapkis and California Communications Professor Richard Webb, is an exceptionally interesting and informative hybrid that combines a well-documented look at the academic and legal underpinnings of American drug policy with the arresting human interest story of how patients suffering from a variety of debilitating, often fatal, conditions were arbitrarily punished for their use of “medical marijuana” by the same federal bureaucracy that has been both prosecuting the drug war and shamelessly lobbying on behalf of its necessity as policy.

At this point it’s necessary to acknowledge the intensely political nature of medical marijuana, the subject Chapkis and Webb have chosen to deal with in a well researched and commendably even handed manner. Their introduction explains how they came to collaborate on the project despite quite different backgrounds; both also admit to prior acquaintance with various WAMM members, and that they also harbored biases against official policy without necessarily agreeing on all issues. It's precisely because of such full disclosure, extensive documentation, scrupulously even-handed style and the DEA’s own treatment of WAMM patients that all but the most partisan readers should be convinced that not only is cannabis (“marijuana”) medicine, but our government’s continuing insistence on its prohibition, mindless even when first enacted in 1937, has done enormous damage since it was intensified in 1970, and is now nothing less than an embarrassment.

This book is scholarly, but also very readable; it’s efficiently laid out in eight short, but densely annotated chapters that shift back and forth between an academic history of American drug policy from 1914 to the present and the intensely human story of WAMM, especially as its members were affected by the military style early morning raid the DEA carried out in September 2002

WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana) is a Santa Cruz, California cooperative with roots traceable to a 1973 injury sustained by one of its founders, Valerie Leveroni, then a young college student, who was nearly killed when a light plane buzzed her car and caused it to roll over. The accident produced a severe head injury that left her with crippling headaches and a seizure disorder resistant to conventional treatment. The following year, after her fiance, Michael Corral, read about marijuana’s success in controlling seizures in patients with epilepsy, they decided to try it. Over the ensuing months, Valerie was restored to a level of physical and intellectual function she hadn’t thought possible.

Fast forward to 1992; the Corrals, then long married and living a quiet life in Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz. had a garden in which they grew flowers, vegetables, and Valerie’s medicine. Local police had chosen to ignore their few pot plants until they were spotted in a helicopter fly-over by an outside police agency and the local prosecutor elected to file charges. The Corrals were offered a plea bargain in which charges would be dropped in return for a promise not to use pot, but that was a condition Valerie felt she couldn’t accept. It was also a time of increasing pressure on the DEA and its parent Justice Department to reschedule marijuana as a “schedule two” agent, but they had adamantly refused, even to the point of overruling their own administrative law judge and dismantling a “medical necessity” program started under President Carter and continued for a while under George H. W. Bush.

Over a protracted interval, the ongoing stalemate between federal agencies and patients caused tensions to escalate gradually and finally generated Proposition 215, California’s ballot initiative. Because the members of WAMM were among the sickest medical users, they were (mistakenly, as it turned out) assumed by most to be the only acceptable model for “valid” use, even as the feds were insisting there is no such thing.

In fact, as a careful reading of the references assembled for this study makes quite clear, the behavior of our federal bureaucracy has been breath-takingly dishonest and punitive in every situation in which the issue of medical use has ever come up.

Although medical marijuana laws have been passed by several other states since 1996, none have attracted the attention of California’s nor generated so much intrusion from the federal bureaucracy. While “Dying to Get High” doesn’t explicitly call attention to that differential federal interest, it leaves little doubt that it exists and raises its own implicit questions about policy bias.

After a jury refused to convict Valerie Corral following her 1992 arrest, she and Michael became increasing visible as symbols and their lives have been irrevocably changed by their courageous advocacy. What I have learned from working on a similarly opportunistic, but differently framed, study of pot use in a very different setting than WAMM, has been that the “traditional” arguments that have raged between medical marijuana advocates and the DEA have been false. Ironically, that’s because of false assumptions made by both sides about “recreational” use. Equally ironically, the “high’ referred to in Chapkis and Webb's title isn’t intoxication; it’s a brief, precisely controlled anxiolytic state produced by pot when it’s inhaled one that's therapeutically very useful for those suffering from the increasingly common symptoms of anxiety now besetting our species. In fact, it was the appeal of inhaled pot for the first baby boomers that triggered its sudden popularity with them while inducing Richard Nixon to declare “war” on drugs. The pot market has been unstoppable over the ensuing forty years since Nixon closed the Mexican Border for Operation intercept in 1969, but futile federal attempts to suppress it have done enormous damage to the lives of over twenty million (mostly young) people arrested in support of those attempts.

Parenthetically, the financial debacle the world is now struggling with presents all humans with a similar dilemma: how do we create and maintain an acceptably honest regulatory effort with enough transparency to hold (the inevitable) cheating to an acceptable level?

Although Proposition 215 passed comfortably in 1996 and its basic premise— that marijuana has medical value— is now supported in polls by eighty percent of Americans, the law is still stubbornly resisted within California by state and federal police agencies that are colluding to harass, arrest, and prosecute credentialed patients to the extent they can get away with. They are being aided and abetted in those tactics by a prevailing media bias that considers most cannabis use, especially by youth, as “recreational” and thus fair game for law enforcement.

Nevertheless, as the state’s medical gray market has gradually become more robust and more visible, the California experience is posing a threat to a policy once considered invulnerable.

Chapkis and Webb have focused on local terrain they were both personally familiar with; in so doing, they have produced an accurate and detailed history of the pertinent policy issues. Ideal timing gives their readable account of the WAMM fiasco a real chance to make a difference in our (changed) Presidential climate.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at November 16, 2008 07:54 PM