Medical marijuana benefits proven

Surprise. Medical marijuana really helps. What millions of us have known ever since friends with AIDS proved it more than a decade ago is now affirmed. San Francisco Chronicle writers Victoria Colliver and Wyatt Buchanan broke the news today:

The first U.S. clinical trials in more than 20 years on the medical efficacy of marijuana found that pot helps relieve pain and muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and certain neurological conditions, according to a report released Wednesday by a UC research center.

Dr. Igor Grant, a UC San Diego psychiatrist who directs the center, called the report “good evidence” that marijuana would be an effective front-line treatment for neuropathy, a condition that can cause tingling, numbness and pain.

The results of five state-funded scientific clinical trials came 14 years after California voters passed a law approving marijuana for medical use and more than 10 years after the state Legislature passed a law that created the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, which conducted the studies.

California’s Proposition 215, passed in 1996, allows patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation to grow and possess marijuana for personal medical use. It is one of 14 state laws legalizing medical marijuana. But the federal government still says pot is illegal and without medical benefit. Perhaps that may now change.

“This is the first step in approaching the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), which has invested absolutely nothing in providing scientific data to resolve the debate,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who noted that marijuana showed benefits throughout the AIDS epidemic in helping people afflicted with neuropathy and other ailments.

Dale Gieringer, a Berkeley resident who is executive director of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, agreed.

“This is finally the evidence that shows that the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) stance that marijuana does not have medical use is just wrong,” he said. “It’s time for the Obama administration to act.”

The bad news is that funding for research that could further confirm the potential medical benefits of marijuana may soon run out.

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research has approved 15 clinical studies, five of which were completed and reported Wednesday, and two are in progress. While researchers said more studies are needed, the future of the center is in doubt.

The center has spent all but $400,000 of the $8.9 million in research funding it started with in 1999. Leno said the state doesn’t have the money to continue funding it.

“It may be close to the end of its life unless there’s foundation money to continue the work,” Leno said.

If we could just combine the savings that could accrue from getting the feds out of the pot-prosecution business and the taxes that would accrue from legalization of medicinal use, a lot of that work could continue. And a lot of suffering could be alleviated.

Gay rights: a strange week everywhere

President Obama seemed finally on the move toward ending don’t ask, don’t tell after 16 years. The California same-sex marriage case was inching toward its anticipated target, the U.S. Supreme Court. Gay rights supporters were beginning to see rays of hope. That was the beginning of this week.

Nearing week’s end, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had joined Adm. Mike Mullen in calling for an end to the policy, was saying we should not rush into anything. Former Secretary of State and Retired Army General Colin Powell had switched gears and said the onerous law should be changed. Judge Vaughn Walker had begun to sift through testimony in the Perry v Schwarzenegger — but you can watch it (well, a reenactment set up after cameras in the courtroom were barred) yourself if you’d like to second guess the unpredictable federal judge. It has been a strange week, and it’s not even Friday yet.

In the California capitol meanwhile, State Senator Mark Leno, an openly gay and widely influential state legislator, is pushing a bill to defuse religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The bill would alleviate clergy concern about their churches losing tax-exempt status by putting the word “civil” before “marriage,” thus clarifying the differences between civil and religious ceremonies. It would protect those unwilling to perform a marriage which conflicts with religious beliefs — an argument that featured prominently in the acrimonious debates leading to Proposition 8 ‘s ban of same-sex unions.

Leno’s bill has the support of LGBT organization Equality California, whose executive director Geoff Kors says it will eliminate confusion, and of the pro-Prop 8 California Southern Baptist Convention, whose spokesman Terry Barone calls it “good legislation.”

We may never see bipartisanship in Washington, but when Equality California and the Southern Baptist Convention come out in support of the same legislation, it has to be a sign of progress. Or Mark Leno’s political wisdom. Or something.

An elder revolution? It's possible

If you are over 50, or plan to be over 50 at some future date, you have just been issued a challenge. You might call it a leadership alert.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who does have a good head on his shoulders, yesterday published an interesting column advancing the theory that real social change will come from the geezer generation. Those at the time of life traditionally perceived as fuzzy, withdrawing and passive. Or at best, the time of life in which most are inclined to let the young folks do the heavy lifting. But those times, Brooks maintains, have changed.

Citing studies undertaken over past decades, Brooks explains that the geezer generation (in which I am a fully accredited member) is now understood to be not so dimwitted and inept as long thought. Beyond new research that shows brains can continue to thrive and develop into one’s late years, people who had been studied over a 50-year period proved to be increasingly outgoing, self-confident and compassionate.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we geezers — a population about to boom as the Boomers hit Medicare age — are eating up a way disproportionate share of the GDP. So pensions are going to keep getting money that would better be spent on education, taxes will go to fulfill earlier promises, etc.

Then, though, Brooks turns it all around a new corner:

In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.

I used to think that political leaders could avert fiscal suicide. But it’s now clear change will not be led from Washington. On the other hand, over the past couple of years we’ve seen the power of spontaneous social movements: first the movement that formed behind Barack Obama, and now, equally large, the Tea Party movement.

Spontaneous social movements can make the unthinkable thinkable, and they can do it quickly. It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution — millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.

It may seem unrealistic — to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.

The elderly. They are our future.

We could start by convincing seniors to ignore the scare tactics of their conservative friends and support health reform. Mount a movement for what is morally right: health care for all Americans. Their grandchildren will thank them.

Not being a community organizer myself, I don’t know how to start this campaign. But if you have any suggestions I’ll join the movement.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Geezers’ Crusade – NYTimes.com.

Obama on community colleges — & one teacher's response

Some of us, still believers, admit our expectations of Barack Obama might have been too high. And it may go both ways. Anna Tuttle Villegas, a teacher at San Joachim Delta College for 35 years, wonders if expectations of what community colleges can deliver are a little muddy themselves. Villegas, whose literary distinction — award-winning poetry, fiction, essays — would have supported a far more prestigious career choice had she not been dedicated to those community college students he has in mind, ventured a response to the President’s address:

Nobody, absolutely nobody, appreciates better than a community college teacher the transformative effect education can have on the quality of life of her students. As our president explained last night in the preface to his promise to revitalize the nation’s community colleges, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

Amen.

The president’s enlistment of me in the federal plan to make college accessible to more students inspired my own new year thought.

College students agelessly enter and depart classrooms year after year, never growing older. Sure, their hair color changes from day-glo green to hi lites and low lites, their musical tastes boomerang from reggae to screamo, and their pants grow shorter and tighter and then longer and looser and sometimes fall off. Beneath superficial alterations in fashion, college students remain forever youthful, making their teachers, witnesses to an endless parade of youth, especially vulnerable to the conclusion that it is our outlook — and not that of our charges — which has been fundamentally corrupted by the passage of time.

When I went to college almost forty years ago, the expectations of academic culture were fairly clear. Instructors and professors were generally assumed to have, if not greater innate intelligence at the moment of instruction, then at least greater skill and knowledge than their wards.

Times have changed. Villegas (herself educated at U.C. Santa Barbara and Stanford)  suggests that expectations brought by students themselves are murky, and roles of instructors and learners often confused. She gives some anecdotal evidence of how and why the “one-size-fits-all approach to community college enrollment” may call for re-examination of expectations laid on colleges and teachers both:

Years ago, a student encounter introduced me to what is now commonly recognized as the Joe Wilson school of public discourse. Upon being informed that spotty attendance may have played a pivotal role in the student’s bewilderment (Was it really Wednesday? There was a paper due? And who was I, anyway, expecting him to be in possession of a course syllabus?), this particular student threw down his weighty backpack and proclaimed me an “f-ing bitch.” Several times.

That school marms sometimes do turn into f-ing bitches shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the frequency with which contemporary students feel the need to remind us of the fact, colloquial dialect and all, should.

Back in the day when one-on-one conferencing was hip, I recall explaining to a bright and sassy young woman how sentence fragments, not advisable in college essays, were marring her otherwise insightful writing.

She didn’t buy it. Hand on cocked hip, very Mae West, she growled at me: “What if I don’t think it’s a sentence fragment?”

Indeed.

Villegas concludes her essay with a quote from Robert Frost: “Now when I am old my teachers are the young.”

Now I am old. What the young teach me is that many students fail to approach their college studies with the respect for learning essential to our college model.At the risk of being an f-ing bitch yet again, I want President Obama to consider that before we commit to sending even more students to community colleges, we should decide what exactly it is we expect of them.

Anna Tuttle Villegas: College to Go.

The Republican Faux Census

We are in receipt of the 2010 Congressional District Census, Official Document, Process Immediately, Census Document Registered To: (I will never tell.) In slightly smaller, definitely not-bold print: Commissioned by the Republican Party.

This household is not known for being a bastion of Republican conservatism. It does, however, harbor one member known in some circles for contrarianism — for want of a better word. That member has duly completed the Census Document, with a few terse asides here and there and one or two spots left blank. It may skew the results a little, if anyone pays these things any mind.

In case your Census Document has not arrived, here are the basic facts as reported by The Associated Press:

“Strengthening our Party for the 2010 elections is going to take a massive grass-roots effort all across America. That is why I have authorized a Census to be conducted of every Congressional District in the country,” GOP Chairman Michael Steele says in a letter mailed nationwide.

The letter was sent in plain white envelopes marked “Do Not Destroy, Official Document.” Labeled “2010 Congressional District Census,” the letter uses a capital “C,” the same as the Census Bureau. It also includes a “Census Tracking Code.”

The letter makes a plea for money and accompanies a form asking voters to identify their political leanings and issues important to them. There are no disclaimers that participation in the GOP effort is voluntary; participation in the government census is required by law. Failure to participate carries a $5,000 fine, though it is rarely enforced.

Participation in this particular Official Census Document can be tricky. One can get past the name, age, party registration information in a straightforward manner… but then come the serious issues. Nicely phrased serious issues:

How much does it concern you that the Democrats have total control of the federal government? Control? Who’s in control? One is tempted to have No Opinion.

How confident are you that America’s economy will improve in the next six months? This may be an attempt to tap into the confidence factor rampant in the land, what with everyone feeling so hearty and upbeat.

As the Official Document progresses, through Political Profile to General Issues and on into Domestic  and Foreign Issues, it is possible to sense blood pressures rising all over the country:

Do you believe the huge costly Democrat-passed stimulus bill has been effective in creating jobs or stimulating America’s economy?

Do you think the record trillion-dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for our nation?

Are you concerned that as other countries like China buy up hundreds of billions of dollars of our national debt they will have more control in directing our nation’s future economic policies?

(Do you believe that global warming is an issue that must be dealt with immediately?)

Do you trust the Democrats to take all steps necessary to keep our nation secure in this age when terrorists could strike our country at any moment?

Do you worry that Russia is moving away from its relationship with the U.S. and trying to re-establish itself as a military and economic superpower?

You get the picture. If you were not terrified of terrorists — not to mention China, Russia and I left out the one about Obama’s dangerous, non-confrontational dealings with radical leaders in Iran, North Korea and other countries — and on the verge of panic about everything else before you opened the Census Document, you will surely be so by the time you get to the end.

Along the way, you are invited to express your opinion on school prayer, flag burning, abortion, same sex marriage, faith based initiatives and human cloning.

Send money. The envelope is postage paid.

Is marijuana a medicine?

Of course it is, to answer this rhetorical question posed by a January 18 headline in the Wall Street Journal. New Jersey is the most recent to recognize that fact, becoming the 14th state to legalize use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The New Jersey law, signed this week by outgoing Governor Jon Corzine, limits use to patients with specific illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and specifically forbids grow-it-yourself projects.

What’s needed now are serious studies of how good a medicine it really is, and these aren’t happening very fast. As outlined in a New York Times article this week, getting permission to study the weed is no easy task.

Despite the Obama administration’s tacit support of more liberal state medical marijuana laws, the federal government still discourages research into the medicinal uses of smoked marijuana. That may be one reason that — even though some patients swear by it — there is no good scientific evidence that legalizing marijuana’s use provides any benefits over current therapies.

Lyle E. Craker, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Massachusetts, has been trying to get permission from federal authorities for nearly nine years to grow a supply of the plant that he could study and provide to researchers for clinical trials.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration — more concerned about abuse than potential benefits — has refused, even after the agency’s own administrative law judge ruled in 2007 that Dr. Craker’s application should be approved, and even after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March ended the Bush administration’s policy of raiding dispensers of medical marijuana that comply with state laws.

“All I want to be able to do is grow it so that it can be tested,” Dr. Craker said in comments echoed by other researchers.

Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply and for which the government requires a special scientific review.

“The more it becomes clear to people that the federal government is blocking these studies, the more people are willing to defect by using politics instead of science to legalize medicinal uses at the state level,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of a nonprofit group dedicated to researching psychedelics for medical uses.

In California, where a mish-mash of laws and enforcement policies can bewilder all but the expert — (and there are many experts) — the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that lawmakers acted improperly in amending the voter-approved legalization of medicinal marijuana to limit the amount critically ill patients might have:

The high court ruled lawmakers improperly “amended” the voter-approved law that decriminalized possession of marijuana for “seriously ill Californians” with a doctor’s prescription by limiting patients to eight ounces (227 grams) of dried marijuana and six mature or 12 immature plants.

The Compassionate Use Act, passed by California voters in 1996, set no limits on how much marijuana patients could possess or grow, stating only that it be for personal use.

In 1997, the state’s Supreme Court defined a lawful amount as enough to be “reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs.”

The state’s quantity limits were passed in 2003 as part of a voluntary identification card program designed to protect against both drug trafficking and wrongful arrest by allowing police to quickly verify a patient’s prescription.

The court on Thursday let stand the voluntary card program but found that the limits it imposes should not “burden” a person’s ability to argue under the Compassionate Use Act that the marijuana possessed or grown was for personal use.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown said in a statement the decision “confirms our position that the state’s possession limits are legal” as applied to medical marijuana cardholders.

While conceding that marijuana may have some just-for-fun attraction too, I can’t vouch for the recreational weed. Thankfully, since I am addicted to anything that comes down the pike and question the view that marijuana is non-addictive,  it hadn’t made its way to small-town Virginia when I was experimenting with other mood-altering substances. But I do know its medicinal value. My beloved now-deceased sister could have had much suffering relieved with legal pot. Countless friends I loved and worked with during the height of the AIDS pandemic would have suffered less with legal, easily-accessible marijuana.

We are past time to establish, through definitive studies, the medicinal benefits of this natural bounty, and make it legally available to those in desperate need.

Stupak vs. America – Health care bill has come down to this

It’s hard to figure what makes Bart Stupak tick, but my guess is: Ego. Power. Self- absorption. Conceit. For sure, it has nothing to do with concern for his fellow man, and less to do with concern for women. Representative Stupak is perfectly willing to sink a bill that would offer comfort, care and in many cases life itself to millions in his petty, petulant determination to control what we do with our bodies.

Here’s a report by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor on the gentleman from Michigan:

Representative Bart Stupak often endures things others find unbearable. He crisscrosses a Congressional district so vast that some constituents live eight hours apart and so cold that the beer at his beloved football games sometimes freezes. Years ago, as a state trooper, he blew out his knee chasing a suspect, and he has since had so many operations that he now returns to work the same day, toting crutches and ice.

After his younger son committed suicide in 2000, using the congressman’s gun, Mr. Stupak soon resumed his predawn commute to Washington and his solid voting record with the National Rifle Association.

Now he is enduring more hatred than perhaps any other member of Congress, much of it from fellow Democrats. His name has become a slogan: “Stop Stupak!”

Scott Schloegel, his chief of staff, said wearily, “I can’t tell you how many New Yorkers have called me up and yelled at me about this Stupak guy.”

Well, sorry, I can’t work up any sympathy for Scott Schloegel or his boss.  I did not elect them to ordain (along with their friends the U.S. Congress of Catholic Bishops) what American women may or may not do, by writing regressive language into a bill that could start this country toward sanity in health policy. I, along with millions of others, elected Barack Obama in part because we want our ridiculous, dysfunctional health system fixed.

With final negotiations on a health care overhaul beginning this week, complaints about “the evil Stupak amendment,” as the congressman dryly called it over dinner here recently, are likely to grow even louder. The amendment prevents women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying abortion coverage — but critics assert it could cause women who buy their own insurance difficulty in obtaining coverage.

Mr. Stupak insists that the final bill include his terms, which he says merely reflect current law. If he prevails, he will have won an audacious, counterintuitive victory, forcing a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will be hailed as an anti-abortion triumph. If party members do not accept his terms — and many vow they will not — Mr. Stupak is prepared to block passage of the health care overhaul.

“It’s not the end of the world if it goes down,” he said over dinner. He did not sound downbeat about the prospect of being blamed for blocking the long-sought goal of President Obama and a chain of presidents and legislators before him. “Then you get the message,” he continued. “Fix the abortion language and bring the bill back.”

Stupak’s father reportedly began study for the priesthood before changing his mind and getting married. The 10 Stupak siblings went to Catholic schools and he often cites the strength of his Catholicism. I honor him for his faith, and respect that faith. I just do not respect its assertion, via the Congress of Bishops, that one faith should dictate health policy for the nation. Admittedly, they have support from many conservatives, religious and otherwise; but “Fix the abortion language and bring the bill back?” What is he smoking with his frozen beer? It will take another 19 years to bring the bill back, if it comes back at all.

“The National Right to Life Committee and the bishops saw this as a way to vastly increase restrictions on choice,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, who is a chief deputy House whip and co-chairwoman, with Ms. Slaughter, of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

Mr. Stupak was “not given very much negotiating room” by those organizations, Ms. DeGette said. Now “he’s gotten himself into a corner where he says it’s my amendment or it’s nothing.”

(Mr. Stupak says he urged the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to toughen its stance on the legislation; representatives from the conference and the National Right to Life Committee did not return calls.)

It may not be the end of the world for Congressman Stupak if the bill fails to pass. But it will be exactly that for uncounted thousands who are already suffering and dying for lack of health insurance and decent care.

Congressman Wears Scorn as a Medal in Abortion Fight – NYTimes.com.