POSTED ON DECEMBER 5, 2012:
Smoking: It Does a Body Good?
Not just hipsters and deadbeats favor medical marijuana
Chuck Vaughan hasn't used marijuana for more than two decades. But it would be nothing short of a godsend for him if Oklahoma were to legalize it for medical purposes.
Vaughan, who lives in Edmond, suffers from chronic neuropathic pain, the aftermath of spinal surgeries aimed at helping his degenerative disc condition.
"Contrary to what some people may believe," he wrote in a recent letter to Tulsa Sen. Brian Crain, "the reason that we are working for the legalization of medical cannabis is not for recreation.
" ... When we get it legalized, I will work with my doctors, because we believe that it will be a better choice than any of the medicines that I have had to take for the past 10 years to help control" incessant pain.
Vaughan's case is hardly unique. As political momentum builds nationally toward relaxing criminal penalties for possession and use, Oklahomans in increasing numbers are stepping out of the shadows to campaign publicly for an end to what are arguably America's most punitive marijuana laws.
Some are motivated primarily by marijuana's medical potential. Others are buoyed by Colorado's and Washington State's recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Still others are driven by the fact that Oklahoma is bankrupting itself with a three-strikes criminal justice mentality that locks up thousands of non-violent, recreational drug users.
State Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, says public support for her proposal to legalize medical marijuana has mushroomed -- no pun intended -- since she first introduced it in 2007.
Even though it's never gotten so much as a hearing in an uber-conservative, Republican-controlled Legislature, she intends to pursue the matter again next year in hopes lawmakers learn first-hand its potential to ease suffering and improve the state's dire fiscal condition.
"Of course, I'm also realistic," she said. "Just like getting the governor out of the parole process [State Question 762 was approved in a November statewide vote], we're notoriously and dependably the last state in the union to do anything."
Johnson received a glimmer of legislative hope last summer when Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman approved her request for an interim study on the matter. But she could not get Crain, the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee chairman, to schedule a hearing.
Crain, a Republican recently elected to a third term, did not respond to an email request for comment. He initially indicated he would consider staging a hearing, but later was quoted as saying he saw no reason to proceed because federal law prohibits medical marijuana.
It is unclear what he meant since 19 states and the District of Columbia permit have approved use of medical marijuana.
Though Johnson remains committed to the pursuit of legislative action, she concedes the issue ultimately may need to be decided in a statewide vote -- like most so-called vices legalized in the past, including liquor by the drink, pari-mutuel gambling on horse races, and the lottery.
In fact, Johnson said backers of medical marijuana already are reviewing legal requirements for circulating an initiative petition. Proponents were encouraged by the fact that a similar petition in neighboring Arkansas amassed more than 100,000 signatures, resulting in a statewide vote last month -- though it was defeated, it garnered support from more than 48 percent of voters.
"That was an incredible first attempt," said Stillwater's Jeff Pickens, president of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma and one of the organizers of one of the organizers of okmedicalmarijuana.org.
"It's inevitable. It's going to change. There's an avalanche of people wanting to help," he added.
There's an equally entrenched -- and enthusiastic -- opposition to expanding legal "vices" in Oklahoma, including some evangelical leaders, many prosecutors, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, and private companies that do considerable business with the state corrections department.
Opponents contend loosening the marijuana laws will increase crime and drug abuse.
"Marijuana is not medicine," OBN spokesman Mark Woodward told the Associated Press. "We would welcome the opportunity to get to the truth about what's behind medical marijuana.
"It's not about patients or health care or two joints for a cancer patient. We're talking about 60 pounds of high-grade marijuana going out the back door of these medicinal marijuana stores stuffed into the trunk of a car on its way to the East Coast," Woodward said.
What makes Johnson's latest attempt to legalize medical marijuana particularly interesting is that Oklahoma lawmakers embraced a package of criminal justice reforms last session aimed at ending the costly lock-'em-up, throw-away-the-key approach.
The so-called Smart on Crime initiative was former Speaker Kris Steele's signature legislation, a tacit admission by the state's elected leaders that current policy -- making Oklahoma No. 1 in per capita incarceration of women and No. 4 in men -- isn't working.
"What we're doing is taking (non-violent offenders) and exposing them in prison to serious criminals, more dangerous criminals," Johnson said. "When they come out they are full-fledged criminals ... we are just turning non-violent people into violent offenders.
"That's the elephant in the living room."
Even more troubling, she pointed out, is this: Not only are more than half of Oklahoma's inmates incarcerated for non-violent offenses (often drug related), but nearly 30 percent are African American, even though blacks comprise less than 8 percent of the state's population.
Oklahoma's political climate is such that few elected leaders are willing to risk appearing soft on crime. But there's a reason Steele's initiative was dubbed "Smart on Crime" -- it's because it is. And the numbers don't lie:
In neighboring Texas -- not known for a velvet glove approach to criminal justice -- the reforms saved nearly $50 million and freed up the sale of about $10 million in land.
Texas, in fact, was projected to need 17,000 new prison beds by this year, but now it has more than 2,000 empty beds.
More importantly: The state's crime rates are at all-time lows.
That's where the new approach to medical marijuana -- already embraced by 19 states and the District of Columbia -- could come into play.
According to proponents, approving medical marijuana would reduce significantly the number of inmates that taxpayers must care for and increase the number of productive, tax-paying citizens.
Moreover, legalizing, licensing, and taxing medical marijuana could generate sorely needed revenues for a state government struggling to maintain vital core services.
Example A: Colorado.
A National Cannabis Industry Association survey indicates Colorado's medical marijuana dispensaries generated more than $181 million in sales since 2010 and employed 4,200 licensed workers.
Jayson Emo believes Oklahoma could reap similar benefits.
Emo, who grew up in south Oklahoma City and Moore, now lives in Colorado, where he and his business partners operate four dispensaries -- in Denver and Colorado Springs -- and a marijuana infusion processing station.
His businesses, he says, occupy more than one million square feet of previously unused space.
"It didn't blow the state up when it happened," the 31-year-old says. "Everything still works fine. It's been really beneficial to the state."
In fact, he notes, Colorado has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks and McDonald's combined.
While it might be tempting to suggest Rocky Mountain "high" is a way of life vastly different from Bible Belt Oklahoma, Emo contends the two states actually are quite similar politically and socially.
Both states have strong libertarian and states rights strains. And both are loaded with neighborly people who genuinely care about the others around them.
That gives him hope that his native state eventually will embrace medical marijuana.
"I always had an affinity for marijuana," Emo said, matter-of-factly. "I thought, hell, it's legal here. I'm going to become a legal pot dealer. A business partner and I started it, unsure what we were doing. We kind of tap-danced into it.
"I noticed people coming in ... about every other one was like me: younger. I don't question anybody's medical status. It seemed to me it was probably more for recreational.
"I didn't believe in medical marijuana. I thought it was a farce, an easy way for us to smoke. But others were coming in because of Parkinson's, and AIDs, and cancer, and MS, and fibromyalgia, and traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. I started watching these people, how much it helped them. I got a rewarding feeling getting to help people," Emo said.
Emo and his partners also established the marijuana infusion processing station, which essentially extracts cannabis oils that now are being used by some to treat cancer and tumors.
Irony of ironies: The machines are made in Oklahoma. The manufacturer, though, prefers to remain anonymous, fearing blowback from those who might think they are facilitating an illicit drug operation.
"I'm trying to get a MIO [Made in Oklahoma] sticker for them," Emo said with a laugh.
Emo said he believes Colorado's plunge into medical marijuana worked -- and paved the way for November's vote on recreational use -- because dispensary owners and state officials worked to tighten regulations, ensure laws were enforced, taxes were paid, and products were sold as intended.
It didn't start out that way. The first few years, he said, were like the Wild West -- there was little government regulation and criminal interests tried to gain a foothold. Once legitimate dispensers and state officials joined forces, it created a climate that drove cartel and mafia types out and guaranteed a safe, workable system.
Emo contends that proponents of medical marijuana are better served to emphasize the improved quality of life for individuals ravaged by disease and other afflictions than to focus on taxes generated and lower incarceration rates.
Which is exactly what Vaughan and other Oklahoma proponents are doing.
In his letter to Crain, imploring him to schedule the interim study, Vaughan wrote: "If we were talking full legalization, I could understand all the hoopla, but we are talking about people that are suffering with cancer, multiple sclerosis, severe pain, Crohn's disease, epileptics, and debilitating diseases, and delaying and putting this off does not make sense."
Indeed, proponents say they have doctors and other medical professionals ready to testify that "medical cannabis has saved thousands of lives, as well as provided a much better quality of life for millions of people with these diseases. The time has come for Oklahomans to be allowed the same benefits as Americans across the country in seventeen other [now 19] states," Vaughan's letter said.
Vaughan's agonizing spinal condition -- which first struck in 1999 -- turned him into a medical marijuana crusader.
The 55-year-old petroleum landman and registered Republican said morphine initially helped manage the pain and the symptoms disappeared. Eventually, the pain returned and in 2003 he awakened one morning to discover he could not even lift his arms.
"The pain was completely unbearable," he said. "Doctors told me that with surgery, I should be able to use my arms again, but that I would likely be in pain for the rest of my life, even if I ended up having to have more surgeries."
Three discs were fused, enabling his arms to "partially work ... my shoulders would hurt and my arms would go numb all the way down to my little fingers and the two fingers beside them," he said.
Even though he had health insurance, the surgery cost $80,000. And he remains in constant pain.
"What would people do if they had this and couldn't afford the surgery?" he asked. "I'm sure that some people probably end up taking their life."
"If you have not experienced this kind of pain, then you cannot even imagine how bad it can get," he said. "And when you have that much pain, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it's unbelievable. It gets so bad at times that even other parts of your body start cramping and knotting up."
"I hate to say this, but I wish that some of the people that oppose medical cannabis could experience my pain for even one week, and I guarantee you that they would change their mind," Vaughan added.
Vaughan is especially baffled by the opposition to medical marijuana when "I read the government's patent for medical cannabis, and it specifically describes using it to treat my specific problem with neuropathic pain and deterioration of the spine. It makes you wonder if they want people to suffer," he said.
Vaughan said he exhausted his life savings "trying to not lose everything I worked for." Even with insurance, his pain medications cost $1,200 a month -- until one day his insurance company refused to pay anymore. Instead, it required he take morphine -- which he still does, twice daily.
"What I want to do is try and eliminate the harsh narcotics opioids and just use medical cannabis," he said. "I really think that it can work because I've visited with other people that have done it, and doctors tell me I should be able to as well."
"I can't try it though because I don't want to go to jail here in Oklahoma," he said. "My other choice would be to move to a state where I could legally use cannabis. All of my kids and grandkids are here, so I hate to do that unless I have no other choice."
Vaughan continues to work as a landman, but mostly from his office. He no longer is able to travel to courthouses to do research because he can't sit in a car long.
"I have to move around fairly often," he said, "and can't stand for very long."
Not all marijuana-related initiatives were approved in November's general election. Oregon voters -- yes, hippie-infested Oregon! -- rejected a proposal to legalize the commercial cultivation and sale to adults.
According to political analysts in the Pacific Northwest, the defeat probably had more to do with the fact the proposal was widely considered to be poorly written and didn't even qualify for the ballot until mid-summer than with any change in Oregon's history of testing the boundaries on marijuana laws.
But while the Oklahoma Legislature may be loath to take up a controversial subject, it appears the general public is open to the idea of at least voting on legalizing medical marijuana: 54.4 percent for it, only 33.6 percent against, according to a statewide SoonerPoll in 2010.
Local politicians outside the Legislature are beginning to weigh in as well, asking why medical marijuana can't be studied.
"You can't lose anything by doing a study, said Bill Christiansen, a former city councilor and current candidate for mayor of Tulsa. "I don't know why a study wouldn't be appropriate ... That's logical to me."
Bill Leighty, a potential mayoral candidate (and UTW contributor), agreed. "It is increasingly evident there are legitimate and important medical benefits associated with marijuana consumption by people with challenging health problems," he wrote in an email.
Leighty said it's time for a general reevaluation of marijuana laws in this country. "Ironically, re-drafting our laws and putting marijuana sales in a supervised setting could potentially lower consumption among young people who are still developing cognitively," he wrote.
City Councilor Blake Ewing wasn't surprised by Crain's intransigence, however. "I wouldn't expect that most Republicans in Oklahoma, regardless of their own personal beliefs, would ever advocate for marijuana studies," he wrote in an email. They know too well that it would be used against them for the duration of their political careers and they simply won't consider it to be worth it."
"I'd check back in about ten to twenty years," he added.
The nation may be ahead of the Legislature on this issue, however. A recent YouGov survey for the Huffington Post found 59 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana -- treating it like alcohol -- with only 26 percent opposed. Interestingly, 64 percent of those surveyed also indicated they were OK with doctors prescribing small amounts of marijuana as a treatment protocol.
Those numbers suggest, Vaughan said, that Americans are "learning the truth" that medical cannabis should be legalized.
"Cannabis is truly a miracle plant that God put on our Earth, and it can help many suffering people have a much better quality of life," he said. "This decision belongs in the hands of our doctors, not our politicians."
Opponents of marijuana legalization long have contended that it is a gateway to other drugs, but a recent Yale University study indicates that alcohol's gateway affect is much greater than marijuana.
Despite the legislative roadblocks in Oklahoma, Emo and others are convinced medical marijuana eventually will be approved here. And he believes Colorado's blueprint shows how.
"You're going to get the pothead vote," he said. "You're going to get people who are about states rights. You're not going to get Christian conservative vote in the Legislature."
So, he said, proponents must draft the proposal in ways that answer opponent's questions: For example, if you're caught selling pot to kids, you go to jail. You use blood tests to determine if people are driving under the influence -- same as alcohol.
"You start everything at the local level and work up," Emo said. "You cater to the people you know were going to vote no and start whittling away at that number.
"You're going to get the 18 to 35s. They're going to vote for medical marijuana. What you've got to get is that 35 and up to understand it. You don't ever get that full number but you chip away at it," he said
"And you focus on helping dying people -- not on paying for stuff," he added.
Emo likens the medical marijuana effort to the battles to end Prohibition. And he uses his family tree to make the point.
"My family has a moonshining background in eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas. We're just the moonshiners of our generation. This is our Prohibition war," he said.
"I think it's going to come to Oklahoma. I think it's going to come sooner than everyone thinks."
Back at the Legislature, Johnson said her next move is to introduce legislation taking marijuana off the Schedule 1 drug list in Oklahoma. She has requested Senate staff to draft language to that effect.
In the meantime, Crain's refusal doesn't preclude Johnson from holding a hearing herself. She merely can't get reimbursed for expenses.
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