According to the federal government, 53-year-old Deborah Palmer (not her real name) doesn't exist. A grandmother and former California corrections officer, Ms. Palmer suffers from chronic spinal pain (the result of a pair of botched back surgeries) and fibromyalgia. Because her body is allergic to opioid medications, she recently began using medical marijuana to obtain relief from her daily suffering. That is until federal and state law enforcement officials raided the California dispensary that provided her medicine.
"What am I going to do?" she lamented in one of our recent conversations. "If I have to live in this amount of pain 365 days a year without access to my medicine, then I'm not going to stay on this Earth very long."
Having worked in drug-law reform for decades, we personally know hundreds of patients like Deborah Palmer. Unfortunately, those in the federal government who oppose the therapeutic use of medical marijuana appear to be unaware of even one.
Speaking last month to the Associated Press, Tom Riley -- spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy -- launched into an all too common ad hominem attack against medical marijuana and those who advocate for its regulation. "There is a charade going on here," he charged. "[P]eople who are interested in drug legalization using genuinely sick people as pawns to get sympathy to get their agenda through."
This critique bemuses us. After all, we actually know medical marijuana patients -- yes, real live medical marijuana patients. We interact with them at conferences. We help them organize protests. Some of us lobby with them in Congress or the state houses. Others help coordinate their legal defenses when they've been arrested. Many of them are our friends and colleagues too. Sure, we also want legalization, not just for medical use. But while the drug war continues to rage, we desire to have the sick and dying taken off the battlefield. Who wouldn't?
Meanwhile, we keep getting these letters from the people that our government claims don't exist.
"I have had multiple sclerosis and a seizure disorder for 13 years now. I tried treating my disease the legal way and just got sicker and sicker - to the point of staying in bed all day. Then I tried marijuana, and it's like a wonder drug for me! I do not get high from the marijuana; it helps relax my muscles and takes the spasms away. Not to mention it's the only way I have an appetite to eat anything. How could someone tell me, 'no medical marijuana for you?'"
"Six years ago I was literally struck down with fibromyalgia. I simply couldn't get out of bed one morning. I crawled versus walking most of the time as it was less painful. I was of no use to anyone, including myself. I also had no appetite whatsoever. I lost 20 pounds in a matter of weeks, leaving me a frail 100 lb 50-year-old. My husband thought maybe marijuana might help with my appetite, so he 'scored' some for me. It not only restored my appetite, it also took a lot of my pain away. It makes me sick to think we both could [be] arrested. When is this country going to wake up?"
"I am a six-year ulcerative colitis patient who quit all prescribed medicines and only took to cannabis. It worked faster and more effectively than standard medications and had fewer side effects. Now I can't have cannabis for job purposes and my symptoms are returning."
"I have Crohns disease. I do not smoke anymore because I'm afraid I could lose my job. My health has suffered because of quitting and I have suffered greatly. My own doctor has told me that cannabis can greatly benefit my disease, which has left me with the intestines of a 75-year-old person even though I am only 38."
"I've moved back home to a state that does not allow the medical use of marijuana, and it is very hard for me to find relief from my pain now. My doctor has increased my medications twofold, and I [still] do not get the pain control I had with [marijuana]. I just hope some day the government will stop demonizing a very useful tool."
"I am a highly qualified physician with years of experience in Africa and Asia, as well as seven years at the World Health Organization in Geneva. In 1991, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. I now have a serious form of the disease with marked rigidity, loss of balance and tremor. Medication has proved useless or worse. At present I take none. About ten days ago I tried marijuana. After a delay of several hours there was an amazing improvement. Rigidity and loss of balance were much milder. I 'got my body back,' and could do things that had been impossible for five years."
"I was recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor inside the left the temporal lobe of my brain. I had surgery, and I've just started chemotherapy and radiation. The surgeon actually apologized for the fact that he could not write me a prescription for marijuana, but he told me it was safe to smoke. My prescriptions make me very dizzy and nauseous and I have ever-present headaches that top any of the worst hangover headaches anyone could possibly have. My brain is still so badly swollen. The swelling has actually gotten worse and is exacerbated by the radiation. Marijuana is saving my life right now; it has helped to kill my seizures, nausea, dizziness, and calm my headaches. If marijuana can help me with all my other problems in addition to possibly reducing the size of my tumor and extending my life, then why on earth would our government not allow me to have it?"
Despite the venom of Tom Riley and his ilk, this issue is not about us. It is about these real Americans, from all walks of life, who are desperately in need, and who are desperately seeking help and looking for answers. They deserve the freedom to manage their serious medical travails as best they can -- with medical marijuana, if that's what works best for them. At a minimum, they deserve an acknowledgement from the Tom Rileys of the world that they are alive -- and living in pain.
Perhaps to finally receive that, instead of just writing to us, they will need to confront those government officials who think so little of denying them legal access to a plant that can improve their health and well-being. Maybe then politicians and bureaucrats will stop cynically bashing "our agenda," and finally start responding to needs of the citizens it is their duty to serve.