Pot luck politics

As soon as he opens his eyes, Paul Adams can tell whether it is going to be a marijuana morning. On those days, when his legs are so pained and numb he must physically push them over the edge of the bed, he reaches for the only medicine he's found to quickly and effectively ease his suffering.

Adams, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1982 and AIDS in 1993, doesn't find it in his medicine cabinet stocked with a half-dozen legal prescriptions for pain. But two or three times a week, he lights up his bowl, takes a couple of hits and waits for sweet relief.

Marijuana, he says, "is one of the drugs that helps keep me alive."

Like Adams, 47, of Daytona Beach, thousands of patients in Central Florida find relief through marijuana. Patients use it to treat the symptoms of diseases as diverse as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. They praise marijuana's anti-nausea properties, how it curbs pain and increases their appetite. The walking wounded, they filled the back rows at a recent Orlando conference on medical marijuana sitting with their canes or oxygen tanks, a few shielding pained eyes with thick, wrap-around sunglasses. Some are quietly encouraged to try it by their doctors, others hear about it through other patients, but all are technically breaking the law with every medicinal toke.

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An underground cause since the early 1970s, the issue of medical marijuana has created a buzz in Central Florida. Al Krulick, a Democratic challenger for Republican Bill McCollum's 8th District congressional seat, has made ending the drug war and legalizing medical use of marijuana part of his campaign platform.

Denying patients access to medical marijuana, Krulick says, "is just another part of the '80s drug war that didn't work."

McCollum, a proud drug warrior, represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Although Krulick says McCollum supported the use of medical marijuana in the early 1980s, McCollum has now introduced a bill that would specifically ban its medicinal use. According to a copy of the bill released by his office, marijuana is a "dangerous and addictive drug."

A statewide initiative on medical marijuana, which probably won't come to a popular vote until 2000, is also prompting a closer look at the issue. The Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana currently is working to collect the signatures of a required 435,000 registered voters, an effort that probably won't be completed until the Aug. 1, 2000, deadline. Within the next few months the group hopes to have at least 10 percent of the signatures, enough to trigger a review of the initiative's language by the Florida Supreme Court, a necessary preliminary step.

Both Krulick's platform and the petition drive have been prompted by the public's support of medicinal marijuana. "This is a patient-lead initiative," says Toni Leeman, president of the Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana, who herself got involved after a friend with cancer was urged by her doctor to try marijuana. "People are tired of being considered criminals."

While most politicians still maintain a blanket anti-drug position, Kevin Aplin, president of the statewide Cannabis Action Network, says "people are out there visibly putting up an alternative position to the one the government has."

As for Krulick, he is one of the few major-party candidates in the country willing to take such a public stand. It's a stand that would have been political suicide just a few years ago, says Paul Armentano, director of publications for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML). Even today, pro-medical marijuana candidates can be cowered into silence. He says anti-drug warriors routinely muffled the pleas of the sick by twisting any talk of medical use of marijuana into shouts of how marijuana is a "gateway drug" that leads directly to harder drugs. Discussing medical marijuana is no longer a debate about helping the sick, but a sign of who is weak on drug abuse.

"The debate has simply been framed as tough vs. toughest," says Armentano, who adds that there was a type of "religious zealotry" attached to the issue. But, he says, "that is all changing with people like Al Krulick making it a high profile part of their campaign."

Krulick says he thought long and hard before taking his position. Although polls have showed the public overwhelmingly supports the controlled use of medical marijuana, Krulick says he avoided talking about the subject when he ran against McCollum in the last election. He was worried about personal and professional fallout.

"This is clearly an emotional issue, and we live in very volatile times," he says. "I had to consider all the potential damage that I could have done. It's very tough to get through the emotions. When you talk about legalizing marijuana, automatically [it is portrayed as] you want kids to be on drugs."

In the end, Krulick says, he decided to make the drug war and medical marijuana an issue this time because comments from the public showed him it is "clearly an issue that needs to be looked at."

NORML's Armentano says the public has already made its decision, although politicians lag behind. About the same time Florida's initiative began 18 months ago, several other grassroots initiatives were growing across the country.

Proposition 215 in California and Proposition 200 in Arizona both endorse the medical use of marijuana and have been approved by voters. (Both, however, are being challenged in court.)

This fall voters in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Alaska will vote on legalizing marijuana for medical use. Serious efforts to put the question to a public vote also are under way in Colorado and Washington, D.C.

This budding revolution is due in part to changes in society, Armentano says. Far from viewing marijuana as "a demon weed," aging Baby Boomers have wide generational exposure to pot. And as that group edges toward the outer rim of middle age, they are experiencing the kinds of health woes -- both to themselves and their parents -- for which marijuana can be helpful.

Leeman, of the Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana, says she was also surprised to find support for medical marijuana use among an unlikely group: senior citizens. As her petition drive takes her to Kiwanis Clubs and retirement communities across the state, she says she routinely encounters people who remember a time, before the 1930s, when there was no marijuana prohibition. They don't see why it shouldn't be available now to help the suffering.

In fact, you don't have to go back that far to find government support of medical marijuana. There actually are eight patients in the United States, including three living in Florida, who legally receive marijuana grown and rolled for medical use from the federal government. While still supplying those few with up to 300 joints a month, that program has been closed to new applications.

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Until the laws change, others -- even those whose doctor may have suggested marijuana use to ease their symptoms -- must resort to scoring on the street.

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Adams says that, although he has created a network of suppliers over the years, he still sometimes must go to street corners or bars to try and fill what he considers a life-saving prescription.

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Adams, who lives on a fixed income, also worries about his cost -- about $35 for a quarter-ounce -- and the quality, whether the pot he buys is laced with other chemicals that could send his delicate immune system into distress.

"I hate having to go out on the street," says Adams, who was charged with possession two years ago after police raided his apartment and found the equivalent of five joints. The charges, which lead him to get involved in helping the initiative process, ultimately were dropped. In order to continue the use of something that he believes helps him to live, "I have to put myself in a criminal situation and facing charges, felonious charges," he says.

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"It is not right. It is absurd."

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