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The Best Medicine? 

In Louisiana, qualified patients are supposed to be able to legally use pot. But so far, the state's medical marijuana laws are nothing but smoke.

Until last August, Wesley Sarradet resided quietly in his childhood home in the West Baton Rouge Parish community of Brusly, with his 92-year-old grandmother, two guns and a closet full of pot.

Sarradet has lived in the three-bedroom home for 42 years. Born with spastic cerebral palsy, he receives a modest income from Social Security. The guns were for security. The marijuana plants provided a source of relief, he says, from uncontrollable muscle spasms that plague him daily and keep him awake at night.

The quiet existence and the security erupted last summer. Sarradet says narcotics agents busted down his kitchen door with a battering ram in the middle of the night. "They were local police officers working with the narcotics task force and they had known me all their lives," Sarradet says, his voice rising in anger. "I went to high school with one of them. Three of the officers in my home had known me my entire life. They called me by my name. They had shattered the back door; glass everywhere. My grandmother was in the next room, the living room, in her hospital bed.

"They said they had a search warrant and I was not under arrest, and to give them any marijuana that I had in the home and they would write me a misdemeanor summons."

Sarradet gave them some loose pot, and the officers countered that there had to be more in the house. "They searched my bank records, they searched through my drawers. They didn't find any other drugs; no cash money, nothing like that." The police took two guns that Sarradet says he purchased legally, and they threatened to seize a stack of adult magazines to check them for child pornography, Sarradet says.

"They said, where did I get my marijuana? They said, 'We can make this all go away' if I tell them -- if I drop names. I got the key and opened my closet where I had my hydroponics operation going, and that made them extremely happy. That's where I was getting my marijuana from -- from my own closet, for my own personal use. There were 14 plants in there, all different sizes, only three of which were budding.

"They told me to get dressed ... they were bringing me in. I was charged with two drug felonies and a misdemeanor; paraphernalia was the misdemeanor. I was charged with possession with intent to distribute, and charged with cultivation. My bond was $75,000."

Agents at the River West Narcotics Task Force who arrested Sarradet can remember his case more than a year later. Task force director Maj. Jerome Fontenot scoffs at Sarradet's claim that he had grown the plants solely for personal use, while assistant director James "Richie" Johnson, one of the arresting officers who knew Sarradet, concedes that Sarradet probably did have medical problems. But Johnson says he has a duty to uphold the law, which makes marijuana illegal no matter what.

The officers told Sarradet they obtained a search warrant based on the testimony of a "confidential informant" who had been in Sarradet's house within 24 hours of the raid, and who told them Sarradet was a pot supplier. Sarradet believes the informant was an acquaintance of his, a man in jail at the time of the raid, and who gave the officers Sarradet's name in exchange for a reduced sentence. "A jailhouse snitch looking to get out of trouble," Sarradet calls him.

Sarradet says he had grown his own pot for years. He found it cheaper, more effective and less overwhelming than prescribed medications, many of which are addictive and have overwhelming side effects. These drugs include hydrocodone (Vicodin) and morphine patches for pain, and methocarbamol for spasms, alprazolam (Xanax) for anxiety and depression.

"I had been using the marijuana therapeutically for a number of years," Sarradet says. "I have spastic cerebral palsy which is severe in my lower limbs and which makes the muscles in my whole body real tense. Cerebral palsy is an electrical impulse from the brain that fires the muscles, and it's almost being fired constantly. Marijuana helps me to relax at night, and helps me to sleep at night."

Sarradet was willing to go to trial, to get relatives to testify that no one outside the family had visited the home just prior to the raid, to lay out his medical history. "I don't think a jury would have convicted me if I would have been allowed to use my medical records in evidence," Sarradet says, "but I didn't know if the judge would have allowed me to use my medical records, or even mention the words 'medical marijuana.'"

So he decided to accept a plea bargain to stay out of jail -- a five-year probation and random drug tests in exchange for a second-offense felony possession charge, though it was his first-ever drug bust. "My lawyer told me that was a best-interest plea and that's what I took -- to guarantee no jail time.

"I've lost my rights to possess my handguns. I can't defend my home and there are two disabled people living in this house," Sarradet says. "I've lost my right to vote and I believe my rights to privacy were violated through the search warrant, being that it was bogus. So that's three rights I believe were violated."

He's getting drug tested, and if he's caught with marijuana in his system that's a third offense and a guaranteed prison stay. Now Sarradet says he can't sleep; he's lost weight, and he says the drugs he takes legally for pain and seizure control have robbed him of his appetite and turned him into a zombie. "I pretty much was really shafted every which way," he says.

The kicker is that in Louisiana, people like Sarradet are supposed to be able to legally obtain medical marijuana.

According to state law, marijuana is legal for patients who qualify to use it. The problem is that the law -- which passed through the state legislature in three incarnations -- never took effect, so medical marijuana remains in a curious legal limbo here.

In 1978, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards signed a bill cleared by the House and Senate to let doctors prescribe marijuana for glaucoma, cancer and paralysis patients. The new law called for the creation of a Marijuana Prescription Review Board to determine who would be able to obtain legal marijuana.

That board never got off the ground. Louisiana's medical-marijuana law lingered until 1981, when an amended version of the 1978 bill was introduced. This one, too, authorized doctors to prescribe marijuana; it also cleared the House and Senate and was also signed into law, this time by then-Gov. David Treen. And like its predecessor, it never saw the light of day. In 1989, the Marijuana Prescription Review Board was deemed an inactive commission and dissolved.

In 1991, another lawmaker took a stab at reviving Louisiana's medical-marijuana law. Rep. Clark Gaudin, R-Baton Rouge, introduced the bill after a young man rolled into Gaudin's office in his wheelchair to talk to the lawmaker about his reliance on pot.

"He would have some type of convulsions from time to time, and he would shake like he had 7,500 volts running in his body," recalls Gaudin, now an attorney in private practice. "He said [marijuana] was the only thing that gave him any kind of relief."

Gaudin, a conservative Republican, says the medical-marijuana issue transcended party lines. "A lot of my colleagues were a little surprised that I would be the author of the bill," he says. "But I didn't do a lot until the committee hearing, and then I had the young man come and testify. He had a class act, I have to say. He was able to show these people what he was going through, and it was very difficult to vote against it."

The bill passed the House 84-7 and the Senate 35-1, and was signed into law by Gov. Buddy Roemer. It won the support of some of the most conservative legislators Louisiana had at the time. Reps. Woody Jenkins, R-Baton Rouge, and Quentin Dastugue and Jim Donelon, both R-Metairie, voted for it; so did Reps. Peppi Bruneau and Sen. John Hainkel, both New Orleans Republicans. Mike Foster, in his pre-gubernatorial days as a Republican senator from Franklin, also backed it.

"It went beyond any philosophy about whether marijuana should be legalized or not," Gaudin explains. "I've always been against that. But I felt like in these types of circumstances, if some person needed it, he should be able to get it without buying it on the street."

Louisiana was one of the first states to have adopted medical-marijuana legislation; several others followed. But like Louisiana's, most state programs never got off the ground.

The roadblock turned out to be the federal government. For a while, the feds appeared to support the notion that marijuana had therapeutic benefits, says Paul Armenthano, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C. But the government ended up taking a no-tolerance position that deterred many states from activating their medical-marijuana laws, he says.

"The states anticipated the federal government was going to reschedule medical marijuana that would allow for the prescriptive use of marijuana -- and the states were actually being proactive," Armenthano says. "Thirty-six states did have laws similar to Louisiana's; only a handful of them got up and running."

In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had launched the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program, known as the Compassionate IND Program. It authorized selected patients to receive pot grown at a federal research farm at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. During the late 1980s, though, the AIDS epidemic and the war on drugs both hit a fever pitch. The FDA received scores of applications for the Compassionate IND Program at the same time the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was trying to quash marijuana use, and the Compassionate IND Program was abruptly cancelled in 1990. Eight patients enrolled in the program continue to receive a tin of government pot every month, rolled into cigarettes.

Louisiana might be able to get its prescription marijuana law active if there were enough momentum in the state to revive it, but Armenthano doesn't hold out much hope. "I'd love to tell you there's a well-organized group in Louisiana working on trying to make that law active," he says, "but I don't know of such an effort."

Despite federal opposition to giving anyone access to marijuana, public opinion seems to veer away from government policy. A Time/ CNN poll released last week showed that 80 percent of those questioned support legalizing medical marijuana. Also last week, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the federal government cannot revoke the licenses of doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients.

This week's elections across the nation contain some initiatives that, if passed, would relax local laws governing pot. Just one, in San Francisco, petitions for the legal right to grow and distribute marijuana to patients. Others in Arizona, Ohio and Nevada would decriminalize pot for everyone -- not just sick people --to various degrees.

In the past few years, voters in California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Maine, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., approved ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana. In Hawaii, the state legislature passed a law protecting those who use marijuana according to a doctor's recommendation.

All these local concessions of the law directly contradict federal DEA policy, which continues to classify pot as a Schedule I substance -- having "no legitimate use in therapy in the United States," and subject to the strictest degree of control. That quandary has created accelerating conflict between state and federal governments, particularly in recent months.

A recent showdown occurred Sept. 5 in Santa Cruz, Calif., when DEA agents raided a medical-marijuana cooperative that had operated in conjunction with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department since 1996, the year California voters approved an initiative legalizing therapeutic marijuana.

The raid sparked protests around the country and angered many California state officials, including Gov. Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Two weeks after the raid, Santa Cruz city council members and Mayor Christopher Krohn appeared in front of City Hall to distribute free marijuana to patients who had a doctor's prescription.

The couple who ran the cooperative, Michael and Valerie Corral, have filed a federal suit intended to challenge the government's authority to regulate medical marijuana in states that have approved it. The case is scheduled to be heard this week.

The DEA stands by its decision to maintain the strictest legal controls over pot, despite past disagreements within the agency itself over whether marijuana has legitimate medical value. In 1988, DEA chief administrative law judge Francis Young presided over hearings to determine whether the marijuana plant, cannabis sativa L, should be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Schedule II substances are recognized to have some therapeutic merit, and can be prescribed by physicians.

Petitioning for marijuana to be reclassified were such groups as NORML, the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics and the Cannabis Corporation of America. Arguing to keep marijuana within Schedule I were the DEA, the Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Young issued his ruling on Sept. 6, 1988. Calling marijuana "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man," the judge -- citing the results of the Compassionate IND Program -- ruled that "one must reasonably conclude that there is accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision. ... It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the Drug Enforcement Administration to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence."

However, the DEA refused to reclassify the herb. The agency's top administrator, John Lawn, rejected Young's recommendation, saying the DEA found "a lack of credible evidence" to support the judge's conclusions. The DEA, along with other agencies committed to fighting illegal drug use in the United States, continue to argue that loosening the restrictions on pot would increase recreational use -- outweighing any potential benefits of medical marijuana.

John King, executive director of New Orleans' Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, has followed reports on medical marijuana with great interest. "I think part of the controversy is, if some people can be helped [by marijuana], can't it be used?" he says.

"In my opinion there are two issues that need to be addressed. Any state law that flies in the face of federal law is a problem right away," King says. "There are federal laws that prohibit marijuana use; it's a scheduled drug.

"Secondly, does the research really show that smoking marijuana is any more effective than using the extract THC?" he asks, referring to prescription medications that contain the active ingredient in marijuana -- tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

"If you smoke a couple of joints a day you are getting the amount of tar and toxic elements in your lungs than you get when you're smoking a pack of cigarettes," King continues. "What researchers say is, all you need is the effect of the THC. The tar, the cancer-producing agents, are not what you want; it's the THC ... but if you don't smoke it, that takes away from the recreational benefit that people want. And how many people are claiming medical need when they are really looking for use recreationally?"

King cautions that no legal body should be casual about allowing medical marijuana. "There's a lot of legal drugs making their way onto the black market," he warns. "If [legalization] occurs, there needs to be a clear indication that marijuana is a chemical substance, and a drug that has an effect like other drugs. And if it's proven to have a beneficial effect -- that is, if it's proven -- then, like other drugs, there may be benefits from using the marijuana."

The crux of the medical marijuana argument rests in the question of whether pot is as effective, or more so, than other medications in easing such ailments as nausea, appetite loss and its subsequent "wasting" effect, muscle spasms, and intraocular pressure.

Most of the evidence that supports marijuana as a therapeutic substance is anecdotal, dependent upon the claims of patients rather than research studies. "Unfortunately, we don't have any good clinical trials that really have looked at marijuana in the same sort of systematic fashion that we have for many of the other medications that we use," says Dr. John Cole, an oncologist at the Ochsner Cancer Institute.

"Although the perception is that it's not as good as some of our other medications for nausea, in terms of being able to prove that, we really don't have these comparative trials. So from a purely scientific standpoint, we can't say for sure whether marijuana is as good as the other medications."

NORML spokesman Paul Armenthano blames the federal government for the lack of research, saying it keeps a tight rein on the pot legally grown on the federal farm in Oxford, Miss. Besides, he says, the quality of marijuana cultivated there is so poor that it would skew any legitimate studies meant to test the herb's effectiveness.

"The marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi at Oxford is doled out for NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) research purposes," Armenthano says. "The overwhelming majority of research, not surprisingly, is research that is trying to find the negative ramifications of marijuana."

He also points out that the pharmaceutical industry -- consistently among the nation's top donors to political campaigns -- vehemently oppose the legal sanction of any medication that patients can grow for themselves.

The scarcity of clinical studies means that scientists don't really know why marijuana seems to work so well for some patients, says Jean Redmann, the Education Director for the NO/AIDS Task Force. "It could be the alchemy of so many things that are in the plant -- that's a theory. No one has done much scientific research on why it works; it's very hard to do scientific research on marijuana right now," she says.

"I think most of us [at NO/AIDS] -- I'm going out on a limb here -- I think most of us would be OK with using marijuana to relieve symptoms if it were legally prescribed," she says. "It has some evidence of medical efficacy."

Redmann recalls the issue of medical marijuana coming up during a doctor's visit with her mother, years ago. "My mother's oncologist told her that 'some people say marijuana helps alleviate the symptoms.' And he gave me this look, as if to say 'OK, you're the daughter living in New York ... .'"

Cole cites a survey taken in 1991 by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, who polled its members to find if any had suggested that their patients try pot. "About 44 percent said they had recommended marijuana to at least one person. That was pretty interesting. But at that time, we were still struggling quite a bit with controlling the nausea and the vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Our expertise has improved quite a bit since then, primarily with the development of anti-nausea medications."

One company, Unimed Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Georgia, patented a synthetic form of the extract THC. The drug, known as Marinol, is prescribed to cancer and AIDS patients to stimulate appetite and combat nausea, though patients have reported it's not as fast-acting or as effective as marijuana in smoked form, and doesn't work well for those who have trouble swallowing. Cole agrees that Marinol is "not a real effective anti-nausea medication," and he generally prescribes other drugs.

An Oxford, Miss. company has developed a medication that contains THC extracted from marijuana; one dose equals about a fifth of the THC normally found in a marijuana cigarette, says its manufacturer, ElSohly Laboratories. The drug is expected to be legal in the United States in about three years, and like Marinol is touted as having the therapeutic effects of marijuana without the high. The company will market its THC extract in suppository form, which Cole admits is "aesthetically not pleasing ... but a patient having a difficult time swallowing would need an alternative route of medication."

Cole acknowledges smoking is one such alternate route. He does not advise his patients to try marijuana, in part due to the risk of being arrested for purchasing an illegal drug. But Cole doesn't object when patients tell him they're already smoking pot, and says he'd probably prescribe it if he could.

"I think there would be a subgroup of patients who probably would benefit from that," the oncologist says. "My primary goal is to get my patients through their treatment as successfully as possible ... and occasionally we do have patients who have problems with nausea, in spite of everything we have. So the more we have to work with, the better."

Wesley Sarradet is another person who has been avidly following medical-marijuana stories. He's planning to one day move to a state that has decriminalized marijuana for medical use. "But I'm the primary caregiver for my grandmother, so seven nights a week I have to stay here, and I'm not in a position where I can leave. But when I am in the position where I can leave, I will leave immediately."

Sarradet says that life since the August 2001 raid has been a grim march of days in which he's either wracked with pain or too drugged on strong legal painkillers to function. "If I want to stay in bed, I can take the medication. If I want to have a normal-functioning life where I can do stuff for myself, I can't take that medicine."

His doctor, he claims, expressed sympathy that he had to quit using marijuana. "My doctor told me my condition is only going to get worse as I get older," Sarradet says.

"He said if he would have been able to write me a prescription, he would have done it. He said anything to help me cope with my condition should be available to me."

click to enlarge A.K. PHOTOGRAPHY
click to enlarge Ochsner Cancer Institute oncologist Dr. John Cole does not advise his patients to try marijuana, but he says he'd probably prescribe it to some if he could. 'The more we have to work with, the better,' he says. - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Ochsner Cancer Institute oncologist Dr. John Cole does not advise his patients to try marijuana, but he says he'd probably prescribe it to some if he could. 'The more we have to work with, the better,' he says.
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