Medical marijuana advocates look to 2018 ballot measure
NORMAN — Jennene Stanley's fingers are permanently bent and scarred from arthritis and multiple surgeries, but she still enjoys playing the piano and harp.
Stanley, 51, of Norman, has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and gastroparesis, a stomach disorder that affects digestion. She wants Oklahoma to vote in favor of medical marijuana next year, so she can use it legally with a doctor's prescription.
"I'm not trying to get high, I'm trying to live without pain," Stanley said.
State Question 788 is set to appear on the statewide ballot in the November 2018 general election. The question originated from a signature drive effort spearheaded by the pro-marijuana group Oklahomans for Health and would allow doctors in the state to prescribe cannabis to treat any condition.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association — the legislative and advocacy group for many of the state's physicians — said it does not currently support legalizing marijuana for medical use, but does support more clinical research on medical uses for the plant.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs is also opposed to medical marijuana.
Meeting in the home of an organizer for Oklahomans for Health recently, patients ranging from several military veterans to a stay-at home mom with chronic pain said they would like to use medical marijuana to treat a variety of medical conditions.
Stanley likens the pain she experiences each day to the soreness a marathon runner feels the day after a rigorous race.
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"That's how I feel all the time," she said.
To treat Stanley's pain, doctors prescribed her increasingly higher dosages of opioids over the years. After 20 years of using prescription painkillers, her tolerance was so great that she was using the highest possible dosage of the powerful opioid fentanyl at one point, she said.
Concerned about her ever-increasing tolerance and the dangers of continuing to increase her dosage, Stanley made a conscious decision to stop using opioids.
She believes medical marijuana would help her live pain-free without highly addictive opioids.
After serving in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, veteran Glenn Stewart, 56, of Owasso, has struggled with a cluster of health problems commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Stewart, who has the words "Freedom" and "We the People" tattooed on the back of his forearms in inch-tall black letters, says he regularly struggles with chronic pain, fatigue, dizziness and memory problems.
Stewart sometimes experiences what he calls 'pain spikes,' an immobilizing, piercing pain in his head that can strike at any time.
"It literally feels like an ice pick is being shoved through the base of my skull," he said.
Stewart stopped taking opioids because he didn't like the foggy, "doped-up" way the drugs made him feel, he said. He believes legal medical marijuana in Oklahoma would help treat many of his symptoms.
"It's inhumane, it's immoral, it's unethical, to deny people medicine that could help them," Stewart said.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs spokesman Mark Woodward said there already are legal alternatives to medical marijuana.
"In 2015, the state Legislature approved the use of cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating tincture oil derived from the cannabis plant known as CBD, for patients with a variety of health issues, including pediatric seizure disorders," Woodward said in a statement. "THC, the psychoactive chemical in the cannabis plant, has been available in medical forms such as pills, patches and liquids since 1985 for physicians to prescribe to patients who don't respond to traditional medication."
Woodard also points to a recent report from the federally funded Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program that shows states that recently legalized medical or recreational marijuana use report an increase in marijuana-related DUIs and vehicle accidents, marijuana-related emergency room visits, and increased marijuana use among teens.
Schedule I drug
Although not advocating legalizing medical marijuana, The Oklahoma State Medical Association is in favor of reclassifying marijuana from its current federal designation as a Schedule I drug.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration views Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, LSD and heroin, as substances with no medically acceptable use and a high potential for abuse.
Reclassifying marijuana would allow for more research on valid medical uses for the drug, said Art Rousseau, chairman of the association's legislative committee.
"There are hints that marijuana has value, but to just release it as a medication without controlled studies would be putting ourselves in a precarious situation," Rousseau said.
The American Medical Association holds a similar position on medical marijuana, also calling for a review of its federal status and new clinical research.
SQ 788 would make it legal for doctors in Oklahoma to prescribe patients marijuana for any reason, with no restrictions on qualifying medical conditions, a fact that Rousseau finds troubling.
"You can see the problem with that," he said. "What if a doctor could write anyone a prescription for opioids or amphetamines?"
Chip Paul, chairman of Oklahomans for Health, said there is evidence that marijuana can help treat pain and inflammation, as well as seizure disorders, anxiety and mood disorders. Paul is also founder of Tulsa-based GnuPharma Corp., which makes essential oils and inhalable-aromatherapy products.
Oklahomans for Health did not write a list of qualifying medical conditions into SQ 788 for a reason, said Paul, who calls the ballot measure "probably the most patient progressive laws in the country."
"We throw a tremendous burden on the physician in our law and that is completely purposeful," Paul said. "We don't want to leave anyone out."