Grass-roots effort

The scene could have been lifted straight out of a Carl Hiassen yarn about a Florida-grown struggle between the powerless and the system, perhaps with a Southern oddball or two borrowed from Harry Crews' dark comic fiction.

The cast of characters protesting on Thursday, March 19, in front of U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum's office next to Lake Eola included seniors and infants, military veterans and peaceniks, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the fit and those requiring wheelchairs, folks who might have hitched their way through time from Woodstock as well as button-down types who would easily pass the facial-hair test at Disney World. Also on hand were AIDS, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's Disease patients, sufferers of chronic bodily pain from around the state drawn together in hopes of drawing attention to House Resolution 372, sponsored by McCollum, R-Longwood, and approved by the House Judiciary Committee on March 4.

"Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use," according to the resolution, which goes on to encourage "the defeat of State initiatives which would seek to legalize marijuana for medicinal use."

Kevin Aplin of Gainesville, a co-founder of the nationwide Cannabis Action Network, questions McCollum's motives. "That's what Bill McCollum wants to do -- to put people with illnesses behind bars."

The non-binding resolution may be brought to the floor for a full vote as early as this week.

"I feel that this resolution needs to be presented so that we can have a national focus on the fact that marijuana is not a medicine," McCollum says by telephone from his Washington office. "There is no scientific evidence certified by the [Food and Drug Administration] that it is. I don't believe that it has any medicinal value."

"Voters should not pass these initiatives," he says. "It breaks down the whole system in our nation for approving drugs."

McCollum, seeking re-election this fall for his 10th term, has done an about-face on the issue. He and Newt Gingrich were among nearly than 40 House members who signed a 1981 bill and/or its 1983 successor which endorsed medicinal marijuana use.

"It would have spent $5 million of federal money annually to create a federal program that would have distributed marijuana to pharmacies nationwide so that doctors could prescribe marijuana for a specific number of conditions," says Robert Kampia, co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Project, in Washington, D.C.

The bill, which was to provide relief for patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, was revived in 1985 and 1995, but never brought to the floor for a vote.

"You've obviously seen me change my views on this," McCollum says. "I wouldn't sponsor them today. The legislation that I worked on was at a time when I didn't realize the potency of the drug. The marijuana plant is much stronger today. I didn't know about the gateway effect of marijuana (to) cocaine."

Some observers paint McCollum's resolution as evidence of a conservative backlash to state referendums in 1996 that brought about the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use in Arizona and California.

In Florida, a similar effort is being coordinated by Floridians for Medical Rights, the political- action committee of the Fort Lauderdale-based Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana. About 15,000 registered voters have signed a petition proposing an amendment to the state constitution allowing for medicinal marijuana use.

Organizers have until Aug. 1, 2000, to collect 435,000 valid signatures needed to put the issue to a statewide vote. A poll conducted last September by the Florida Voter organization found that 63 percent of Floridians would support amending the state Constitution to allow the medicinal use of marijuana.

Last June, the Florida Medical Association passed a resolution essentially calling for physicians' access to marijuana for research purposes. The resolution also called for the federal government to reopen the Investigational New Drug compassionate access program established in 1975, which was closed to new applicants in 1992 and shut down in 1994. Robert Randall, the first person to receive marijuana as medicine from the federal government, is one of the eight surviving previously approved participants in the program. Three live in Florida: Randall and Elvy Musikka, both of whom suffer from glaucoma; and Irvin Rosenfeld, afflicted with a rare bone disease.

McCollum's resolution may or may not have a chilling effect on the issue.

"When you say ‘Just Say No,' it cuts off debate," says Michael Palmieri, executive director of Florida Organization Reformed Marijuana Laws Inc. (FORML), based in Zephyrhills. "We're trying to get them to discuss it. Once people discuss it, they can become informed."

The resolution is oddly timed, in light of growing interest in marijuana research by the medical community and the general public's favorable view of medical marijuana.

The National Institutes of Health convened a panel of experts who concluded in August that "more and better studies would be needed" in regard to the medical value of smoked marijuana.

The committee recommended that the government fund studies of medicinal marijuana related to the areas of chemotherapy-induced nausea, stimulation of appetite and maintenance of lean muscle mass in AIDS patients, reduction of muscle pain and spasticity experienced by MS patients, and prevention of epileptic seizures.

And 69 percent of Americans support "legalizing medical use of marijuana," according to an ABC News/Discovery News poll released on May 29, 1997.

Meanwhile, some Floridians are waiting impatiently for federal agencies and legislators to address their clear and present needs. Some are risking jail for their attempts to stay healthy.

Cathy Jordan, of Manatee County, says she will continue using marijuana, which has proven more effective than anything else in fighting the appetite loss and muscle spasms she's suffered as a result of Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"If I do not smoke pot, I will die," she says. "I am convinced of this. I do not want to see marijuana in the schools. I don't want to see kids stoned. I'm not saying that I want to see widespread drug use. I just want to go into our pharmacy and get marijuana like I would any other drug."

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