Not just blowing smoke, Waco man fighting to legalize medicinal marijuana
Waco Tribune-Herald Online
By J.B. Smith Tribune-Herald staff writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Alan Caruthers, of Waco, says he was 18 years old the first and last time he tried marijuana. It didn’t do much for him. Until this year, he saw no reason to try it again, and he dismissed arguments for decriminalizing it as pothead talk.
It took a four-year struggle with myelofibrosis to change his mind. His leukemialike bone marrow disease gives him constant bone pain. The chemotherapy gives him nausea that makes him vomit daily. The Vicodin, Ativan and other drugs he’s taking to relieve those symptoms are losing their effectiveness, and he’s afraid of getting addicted to them.
So now, at age 44, this Christian family man and lifelong Republican is considering medicating himself with marijuana. And he has become an unlikely advocate for the right to do so legally.
Caruthers has written lawmakers arguing for decriminalizing medical marijuana. He even has signed up with the new Waco chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which advocates medical marijuana as the first step in a larger decriminalization effort. He acknowledges that his stand puts him in unusual company.
“I don’t fit the typical profile of a marijuana user,” he said. “I don’t have any clue on how to go out and get weed. And I sure don’t know how to get good weed, the kind that will help my condition.”
He thinks marijuana would be a gentler and less addictive alternative to relieve his pain.
“I get a couple of hours of sleep every night, then wake up for a few hours before I can get back to sleep,” he said. “Once the Vicodin wears off, I take a Tylenol or more Vicodin.”
And as he faces the growing likelihood of undergoing a bone-marrow transplant, he is desperate enough to test unproven claims that cannabinoids in marijuana can retard the spread of the malignancy in his blood. Last week, he learned that he soon may need a blood transfusion because his blood-cell counts were dangerously low.
“It appears I have a more advanced form of this disease than I had hoped,” he said. “Unless cannabis becomes an option, (a bone marrow transplant) may be my only chance.”
Thirteen states, including California, have decriminalized marijuana for medical use, usually requiring a doctor’s prescription to buy it from an approved dispensary.
The U.S. Department of Justice has responded by raiding dispensaries and making arrests. In recent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has left the fundamental legal issue unresolved, ruling that states have the right to legalize marijuana but that the federal government has the right to enforce its drug laws in any state.
In Texas, possession of 2 ounces of marijuana or less is a Class B misdemeanor, but first-time violators without a criminal past typically are given probation. In McLennan County, the medical value of marijuana has never been used as a defense in court, a district attorney’s spokeswoman said, adding that the office would continue to prosecute marijuana users barring any change in the law. Medical marijuana bills have been introduced in the Texas Legislature in the last two sessions but have died in committee.
But this much isn’t controversial: The active ingredient of marijuana — THC — has valid medical uses. It is often effective in reducing chronic nausea and appetite loss in cancer and AIDS patients. In fact, THC is legal and often prescribed in a synthetic form called dronabinol or Marinol.
“THC is effective for nausea control in some patients,” said Dr. Arthur Frankel, head of the oncology division at Scott & White Hospital in Temple and of the hospital system’s Cancer Research Institute. “I think there’s also a powerful psychological effect for patients who perceive it’s going to help them. It tends to be weaker than other drugs, and I tend to use it for people who are not getting a benefit from other medications. Maybe for one in 10, it makes a difference.”
Under federal law, Marinol is a Schedule III drug, making its use less restrictive than Vicodin or even Ritalin, the attention-deficit drug. Marijuana, like heroin, is a Schedule I drug, meaning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans it for any use.
Little medical research has been done on marijuana itself, partly because of legal, political and practical obstacles to doing clinical trials. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Web site dismisses any medical validity in smoking whole marijuana, saying it increases the risk of cancer, can have psychological side effects and exposes users to unregulated doses of hundreds of chemicals.
But some medical researchers think whole marijuana is worth studying for pain and nausea relief because of possible “synergistic” effects of the 66 cannabinoids it contains, according to a July 2006 article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Frankel says he’s not opposed to more research of medical marijuana but puts it near the bottom of the list in priorities in the overall battle against cancer.
Caruthers said he has checked into Marinol but concluded that it would cost him about $600 a month. Because Marinol can take more than an hour to take effect, vs. a few minutes for a joint, he said the effects would be harder for him to control. And he holds out some hope for the possibility that the cannabinoids in marijuana could have a positive effect on his disease, based on some studies he has read.
One study, published this month in the British Journal of Cancer, concluded that marijuana cannabinoids stopped the growth of prostate cancer cells in the laboratory. Scott & White’s Frankel said the finding is intriguing, but the positive effects would need to be tested in clinical trials on humans.
Caruthers said he doesn’t have time to wait. He soon will need to make a decision on a bone-marrow transplant, which would cost about $250,000 and has a 20 percent chance of killing him, he said.
Meanwhile, the Waco NORML group is focusing on medical marijuana as its primary issue. The group, which meets monthly at Poppa Rollo’s pizzeria, has signed up 37 members.
Cliff Deuvall, the group’s founder, says he uses marijuana for chronic pain stemming from combat injuries in Vietnam. He said he was an Air Force sergeant during the 1975 Saigon airlift and suffered a blast that resulted in injuries to his legs, eye and head. Now a 100-percent disabled veteran, Deuvall said he started using marijuana to fight nausea caused by his injured eye, which eventually was removed. He said he would like to be able to grow marijuana legally for his own use.
“I hope we can get an understanding with local government here that we’re not trying to turn this city into a bunch of potheads,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure that people who need this medication can get this medication.”
Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman said the issue of medical marijuana is barely on his radar screen. He said most marijuana arrests are connected with other crimes, and dealers are a much higher enforcement priority than users.
But Caruthers said those dealing with chronic pain or terminal conditions shouldn’t have to sneak around to get relief.
“With people making end-of-life decisions, cannabis should be an option,” he said. “It’s the mechanism for delivery that’s contentious: How I get it, where I get it? I don’t want to be involved in the whole seedy underbelly of drug cartels. I just think, what if you could grow it on your own?”
He said his family and his confidants at church have been supportive of his exploring marijuana use, but his inner conflicts remain. He said he doesn’t want to be a bad influence on his adopted 4-year-old son.
“My biggest concern is having it around my home, and my family being implicated in it, and risking having (Child Protective Services) come in,” he said.
Caruthers, who is now on full-time disability, has worked in law enforcement and social work, most recently at a Baptist church in Waco and at the Methodist Home. He attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky before moving to Waco.
He said faith remains an important part of his life, helping him face the uncertainty about his family’s future.
But he said it’s the pain, especially at night, that has caused him to struggle with depression and anxiety.
As Caruthers talks, his curly-haired son, Sammy, toddles into the room.
The boy chats with his dad about a computer game. He unties his father’s shoes and takes them off, then swipes his water bottle and steals a sip.
“I see what you’re doing,” Caruthers says. He headlocks the giggling little boy and gives him a few fake swats on the bottom. “Time for your daily spanking.”
The boy grabs the water bottle and heads back to his game.
“Love you, Sammy,” Caruthers says, then slumps back in his chair with a weak grin. It’s late in the day, and the pain is coming on.
“Right now, I could go into the bathroom and puke,” he says.
Caruthers said he has been frustrated by the negative responses he has gotten from politicians he has written about the medical marijuana issue, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
“What would she do if she were in my shoes?” he asked. “What would politicians do if they had to suffer and puke every day? Not that I wish that on them. But if there’s a sin I’ve committed, it’s that I’ve been close-minded. I used to feel that way, too, that there was no reason for medical marijuana — until this happened to me.”