Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up in Smoke

November 11. Last week the NH Senate narrowly failed to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the bill to allow medical use of marijuana. Bummer. Objections ranged from concern about regulating cultivation and distribution to worries that legalizing this use would send a “wrong message” to kids. Many feel, myself included, that allowing seriously ill patients to have legal access to what, for many, is the only palliative is not only a no-brainer but a political initiative grounded in compassion, wisdom and practicality. However, this issue seems to whip opponents into a frenzy of misapprehensions, such as the following.

1. Authorized distribution sites, however well regulated, would make it easier for kids to get their hands on the drug.

Does anyo seriously believe that kids can’t get hold of anything they want right now? Schoolyards apparently are orgies of intoxication, rife with crystal meth, oxycontin, cocaine, alcohol and any number of other controlled or illegal substances. The bill would have licensed three nonprofit “compassion centers” where patients or their caregivers holding state-approved identification cards could receive up to two ounces of marijuana every ten days. Dude, two ounces every ten days does not a party make.

2. Cultivation and distribution could not be adequately controlled.

I spoke last week with Representative Evalyn Merrick, chief author of the bill, who said that some potential clients complained that the proposed system would be so tightly regulated that they would have a harder time obtaining the drug legally than they do now. However, they were willing to undergo a more cumbersome process rather than continue to deal with potentially dangerous dealers or face a felony conviction.

3. State law regulating marijuana should not be in conflict with federal law.

On October 19, President Obama announced that the Justice Department would no longer seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state law. This is a powerful acknowledgment of the legitimacy of marijuana as a medicine.

4. Other medications are available to treat the symptoms of serious illness.

According to many studies, including a 1999 report entitled “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base” from the Institute of Medicine (part of the US National Academy of Sciences) and the American Public Health Association’s resolution supporting safe and legal access, marijuana is one of the most effective substances for assuaging the pain, nausea, and anxiety that people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses endure—for many it’s the only substance that does work. It’s also proven effective in alleviating conditions such as glaucoma, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer’s, among many others.

5. Marijuana is too dangerous to use as medication.

Au contraire. The DEA’s chief administrative law judge ruled in 1988 that marijuana is “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known.” It has never caused a lethal overdose, unlike, for example, Tylenol.

6. Smoking marijuana could have long-term health consequences.

This is my personal favorite. Hey, if I have Stage IV brain cancer or full-blown AIDS, I’m not going to be too worried about the condition of my lungs twenty years hence, but that’s just me.

7. Legalizing marijuana for medical use sends a “terrible message.”

Those who take this stand—allowing that a drug such as marijuana might have a legitimate use actually implies that irresponsible use is okay—must then be in favor of not just regulating but eliminating liquor stores, cigarette sales and all valuable but potentially abuse-able drugs like oxycontin. No? Hmmm…

…which brings me to the final, perhaps most disturbing (and least acknowledged) undercurrent in this debate: the fact, as noted in the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, of the inherent difficulties in marketing a non-patentable herb. The very “naturalness” of marijuana limits the amount of profit pharmaceutical companies can make.

Drug dealers oppose legalization of marijuana for any reason because that would erode their obscene business. Pharmaceutical companies oppose legalization of marijuana for medical use because there’s no profit in it. One way or another, it seems to come down to money and that seems to me to be a very wrong message indeed.

An Imaginary Interview with Olympia Snowe

October 19. For those of us who care about health care reform and aren’t willing to join the frenzied anti-debate (“Read the bill! Read the bill!” I’ll read you the bill, pal), Olympia Snowe’s gutsy decision to break ranks with a party notoriously unsympathetic to independent action was inspiring. Senator Snowe didn’t endorse every aspect of the bill and expressed grave reservations about the public option (she and I differ on that one) as well as the costs (a legitimate concern but so are my insurance premiums) but at least she was willing to move the bill out of committee and on to the next step. I found myself thinking how much I admire her integrity and how I’d love to ask her some questions. So I did, even if just in my own mind.

PT: Senator Snowe, thanks for joining me in this invented conversation. In the statement you issued about your decision to vote yes to moving the Baucus bill out of committee, you said, “When history calls, history calls.” By that, did you mean that the need for health care reform has become too critical for both citizens and the economy to fall victim to partisan politics?

OS: Aye.

PT: You still maintain that the public option would disadvantage insurance companies but you insist that real and substantial changes must be made to the way insurance companies do business in order to rein in costs and eliminate abuses. Is that correct?

OS: Absolutely.

PT: May I tell you a brief story?

OS: Please.

PT: A few years ago, on vacation in Tuscany, I got into a serious motorcycle accident. I was treated at a local hospital and released with instructions to have my injuries checked in a week’s time. By then we had moved on to Rome. There I found a public clinic where my wounds were seen to, the dressings changed and I was sent on my way, all at no charge. This service is part of their national health care system. The United States is the only industrialized country without some sort of public health care option. Don’t you think this is wrong?

OS: Right.

PT: In the aftermath of your vote, I imagine you’ve had to deal with a barrage of both positive and negative feedback.

OS: Indeed.

PT: After your decision Rush Limbaugh called you a “joke” and, with regard to Maine, said, “let’s just saw the state off and let it sail out to sea.” Do you think Limbaugh represents the conservative faction of your party?

OS: Yikes!

PT: I’ve also heard unsubstantiated rumors that Representative Boehner circulated a petition on the House floor calling you “stuck up” and that Michael Steele, GOP chair, suggested that your action was the reason the Red Sox were swept by the Angels. Do you care to comment?

OS: No.

PT: My goodness, I see that I’ve done most of the imaginary talking! Can I ask that we engage in a real interview sometime in the near future? Senator? I’ll have my people call your people!

In these deeply divisive times, it’s rare to find someone of either party willing to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism in order to take a stand. I don’t agree with Senator Snowe’s position on everything but I have great admiration for this woman who clearly puts her own integrity and her duty to principle before blind adherence to ideology. Perhaps ultimately she’ll bail on health care reform if it becomes too costly or too “liberal” and that would disappoint me. But I won’t fear her caving to pressure. In standing her ground, she has given health care reform a chance and created a powerful antidote for the poison of pandering, partisanship and prevarication that currently afflicts the body politic.

Walks of Life

It’s Saturday night, September 26, at the Washington Convention Center and my feet hurt. I’ve been standing for two hours, first in a motley group, then up against a wall, then in a straggly line of folks waiting desperately to find out if we’ll actually gain admission as press to the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner, the highlight of the annual Legislative Conference. It’s a big deal since President Obama is scheduled to speak and that dinner is the party to attend, certainly in DC if not in the entire world. One woman is so anxious that when a fellow reporter taps her on the shoulder to inquire where she got her glitzy handbag on wheels, she screams, “Don’t touch me! I need to get through this!” Oh yeah, collectively we’re on tenterhooks and my personal feet are on fire.

This is my first time being vetted by the Secret Service and it’s an eye-opener. Earlier in the day we emailed our names, DOBs and social security numbers for initial clearance. Those of us who leapt that hurdle presented ID, submitted to body searches and allowed dogs to sniff our equipment. Now we’re marched in a pod to the hall where the gala is getting underway. Every attendee must pass through one of the numerous security checkpoints set up to streamline the process. Since the President will be in the house there is no latitude for latecomers: doors will be locked at 7:00 precisely and even ticketed stragglers will be out in the cold.

As we troop through the glittering masses, I envision being escorted to one of the softly lit, flower-strewn tables, where a comfy chair and nice big glass of wine await but we’re told sternly that the party is for guests only, not for us working stiffs: even resting momentarily at a verboten table is cause for ejection. It’s not easy being us.

The press area is a row of chairs along the far wall where we park our equipment, move in groups to take photographs, and compose our stories. One woman has brought a sandwich. Most of my fellows are in casual clothes; however, I’m dressed to the nines in my black silk Vera Wang and torturous neon purple stilettos. The reason? I have a secret weapon in my purse: a ticket to the gala, which I bought as insurance in case I didn’t make the press corps cut. Now that I know how nonexistent the press amenities are, I plan to use it. My heels might be excruciating but they’re purposeful: I get to walk in the shoes of both reporter and guest. (I also get to find out what kind of dinner $750 buys.)

President Obama gives an eloquent speech about the need for health care reform and reminds this audience with its collective history of oppression, marginalization and defiance that we all must rise together to demand, as a human right, access to affordable care. Patrick Kennedy, accepting an award in his father’s honor, suddenly channels Teddy in an impassioned, thrilling plea for civil discourse about the issues that most divide us.

The night is filled with stars: movie icons and political luminaries, generals and ambassadors, heads of state and kings of commerce. But for me, the most impressive of all are the women, especially the elderly women, who have come in their jeweled, feathered hats and sequined jackets, whose feet have carried them through lifetimes of hatred, struggle, and survival to arrive, finally, at this night, where one of their own stands at the presidential podium.

Earlier in the weekend, during a party to support the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, I couldn’t bear it any longer. In the middle of the dance floor I took off my shoes. All around me, women young and old smiled and nodded: the sisterhood of throbbing bunions and abused arches.

But my feet have not suffered the journey that these elderly women had to take, those marches of freedom and endurance. Tonight they walk into this hall of privilege, to seats at the table they have bought with the currency of courage, in sensible shoes as befits the durable feet of old women. No, they don’t need high heels to stand tall.