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Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Thank You, and Some Corrections"

On December 17th, our post dealt with the State of Maine setting up their medical marijuana program. A few days later we received a comment on our post via Live Journal from Becky DeKeuster of Berkeley Patients Group. We would like to share her thoughts with you as we close out 2009. Next week we will be back to respond to Becky's comments.

Thank you, and some corrections
Greetings, and thank you for addressing the important work that Maine's medical cannabis task force is undertaking to ensure that qualified patients have safe access to medical cannabis there. In the interest of an open exchange of ideas and facts, I write to address some of the concerns you express in this posting, and to clarify certain inaccuracies therein.

First I must correct your statement that "The same people who are helping Maine set up a medical marijuana program are also trying to have full on legalization voted on in the next year in California." Berkeley Patients Group takes no official stand on legal or recreational use of cannabis, and has not contributed to the ballot initiative that California voters may vote on in 2010. To do so would in no way advance our mission, which is as follows:

"The mission of the Berkeley Patients Group is to provide the purest, most effective, and affordable medical cannabis along with integrated holistic health services. We create and maintain the standards of excellence for medical cannabis in all that we do. We foster a compassionate community that advances understanding and inspires action."

As we enter our second decade of operations, BPG is still guided by the vision of our founder Jim McClelland, who died of AIDS-related complications in 2000. To blur the bright line between legalized medical use and legalized adult use would be to do a disservice to Jim, and to the patients who rely on us for medicine, services, and support. We are expert at successful, legal dispensary operations. Legalization is not on our agenda.

My second point refers to the perception that "the west is a mess." If I had a do-over button I would not have used the "Wild West" metaphor in that media interview. It's an easy shorthand, but it paints an inaccurate picture of what is actually happening in western states with medical cannabis laws. (These include Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Montana, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.) Each of these states is dealing with implementation in its own way and each is facing various complexities.

It is important to keep in mind that these states are working separately because our federal government has so far refused to accept the findings of its own DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, who ruled in 1988 that "marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known." He further stated that "the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II," and that "it would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance."

That being said, for the purposes of this comment I will limit my focus to California, which I suspect is the true target of the "wild west" concerns. Of course, the issues that L.A. is facing make for great media and so, unfortunately, those are the reports that the nation hears.

What is less often reported is that there are cities and counties in California where medical cannabis cultivation, dispensing, and use happen with reasonable oversight and without negative impact on local communities or patients. Oakland, San Francisco, Sebastopol, and Berkeley all come to mind as examples. These local governments early on implemented sensible regulations that allowed for, and put reasonable checks on, how patients, dispensaries, and communities can co-exist. And in the case of Berkeley, voters last year authorized a city commission to oversee dispensary operations and safety standards. In short, locales that allow for dispensary operations within clear, fair guidelines simply do not have the proliferation issues that we are seeing in the southern part of CA today. Because their programs are successful, because they work for their communities and don't make waves, they are not sensationalized in the media. The last media BPG received before this past Tuesday was an article in the Oakland Tribune about the City Council of Berkeley unanimously proclaiming our 10th birthday as "Berkeley Patients Group Day" in our city this year. [here is a link to the city's proclaimation "Berkeley Patients Group Day CA 2009" ]

I understand your call for cannabis to be treated as other pharmaceuticals. We have heard it again and again here in California--why can't they just have it in pharmacies? You can get synthesized THC in your local pharmacy, with a prescription. It's called Marinol, or Sativex. Patient responses, though, indicate a strong preference for the natural herbal form of the medicine, which can be self-titrated, and which offers a plethora of strains for the patient to choose from--and yes, scientists here, in Holland, and elsewhere are working hard to match specific strains to relief from specific ailments, and why. We know from our patients' anecdotal experience that various strains work best for different illnesses, but are currently working to link chemical components of each strain to the types of health issues that respond best to each strain. (Again, such research is taking place on a self-regulated basis and under considerable legal restraints, due to the federal government's refusal to address this important concept.) There are even four patients in the U.S. who receive 300 pre-rolled joints a month from the federal government itself, which operates a grow facility at a university in Mississippi.

So. Why can't we dispense it in pharmacies? Well, the folks who make Marinol would like that very much, but the patients say that THC compounded synthetically in a lab doesn't approach the efficacy of using whole plant medicine. Furthermore, cannabis is proven to be less lethal than aspirin. Yes, over the counter aspirin. In terms of patient needs, and taking into account societal impacts, this is not a medicine that requires Schedule I handling (also on Schedule I: heroin and fentanyl. Cocaine and meth are both Schedule II).

Finally, I want to say that I personally appreciate the work you do to help those with addictions to various substances. Your concerns about Maine's implementation of this law are understandable. However, it is especially vital for those in your profession to fully understand the facts about medical cannabis, and to consider Maine's law, and our advisory role, not as a threat but as an opportunity to learn more and to help debunk damaging myths about this substance. I would invite you to research more on the issues I have stated above, and to also consider the emerging role of medical cannabis as a valuable harm reduction tool.

Again, thank you for taking up this issue. I look forward to continued conversation with you as Maine crafts regulations that encourage safe access and sensible medical use standards.

Be well,

Becky DeKeuster
Berkeley Patients Group

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