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Medical Pot Bill Will Get Hearing

Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 22, 2005

by Phil Brinkman, State Government Reporter

Every day for the past 23 years, Irv Rosenfeld has smoked up to a dozen marijuana cigarettes.

On probably every one of those days, someone, somewhere, was arrested for doing the same thing. But the government not only doesn't care about Rosenfeld's drug use; it's been his supplier.

One of just seven remaining patients in the federal government's "compassionate use" program, which provides marijuana for medical uses, Rosenfeld said the drug helps him cope with the excruciating pain caused by an estimated 200 benign bone tumors that daily poke at his muscles and veins.

Rosenfeld, 52, a stock broker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the star witness in a planned hearing today on legislation to exempt patients with debilitating medical conditions from prosecution for using marijuana.

Supporters say he's well- qualified to speak on the subject: As of this week, Rosenfeld has smoked an estimated 220 pounds of marijuana grown by the federal government on a farm in Oxford, Miss. He's the longest-serving participant in the program, which stopped accepting new patients in 1991.

Doctors remain divided over the safety and efficacy of marijuana in treating pain, nausea and loss of appetite that often accompanies debilitating illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Not so Rosenfeld.

"Without marijuana, I probably wouldn't be walking, if I were even still alive," he said.

Rosenfeld wasn't always a fan of pot. In high school, he actually spoke against the drug at school rallies. Holding up a bag of the prescription drugs that had been his near constant companion, he'd say, "Look at me: I'm not healthy. I have to take all these legal drugs. Why would you, a healthy person, want to take an illegal drug?"

But after a friend urged him to try marijuana in college, Rosenfeld said, he found he could sit for more than half an hour. Up to then, he said, he could only sit for 10 minutes at a time before he had to stand.

In 1982, the Food and Drug Administration authorized him to use marijuana. Once a month, he goes to his pharmacist for a tin of 300 joints.

Rosenfeld maintains he doesn't get a high from the drug - either because the receptors in his brain are damaged or his pain is so great - and isn't advocating broader legalization, like many who plan to attend today's hearing do. Rather, he says doctors should be able to prescribe the drug when needed.

Although supported mostly by Democrats, the bill's lead author is Republican state Rep. Gregg Underheim of Oshkosh, who said he was inspired to introduce it by conversations he had with cancer survivors while he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

Few give the bill much chance of passage in the GOP- controlled Legislature, where many view it as the first step toward legalizing marijuana.

Medical experts remain skeptical about marijuana's effectiveness - especially when it's smoked - in the absence of controlled, large-scale studies, said Mark Grapentine, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society. A prescription pill containing THC, the active ingredient in pot, is already available to relieve nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

"To this point, there haven't been those kind of peer- reviewed medical journal (articles) that show that inhaling marijuana through smoking it is the right way to go, especially when you have all the negative effects that come with smoking," Grapentine said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, those include a possible increase in cancer of the respiratory tract and lungs from exposure to the more than 400 chemicals found in marijuana smoke, including many found in tobacco. Other risks are well known - if disputed - including addiction and memory loss.

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