In a recent column opposing the medical marijuana bill pending in the Alabama Legislature, Phil Williams uses the Trojan horse story, which is a Greek fairy tale unsupported by facts, to try to convince the people of Alabama that the current medical marijuana bill should not be passed in any form.

Recently, the state leaders appointed a medical marijuana advisory board to look at surrounding states and assist the legislature in drafting a bill that will provide medical marijuana for the people of Alabama. Currently, 33 states allow medical marijuana for certain incurable illnesses. The advisory board was composed of men and women throughout the state of Alabama appointed by their various constituencies. I was the appointee representing the Alabama Medical Society.

For more than 33 years, I have been an oncologist practicing in Dothan and Marianna, Florida. A year ago I semi-retired, and currently volunteer at a free medical clinic for the homeless and abused women at Love in Action Ministries. I also work part-time in Mariana at the North Florida Cancer Care. As an oncologist practicing in Florida, over a year ago my patients started asking me why I was not providing medical marijuana, which was legal in the state of Florida. I took the necessary training and now have approximately 15 patients that I prescribe medical marijuana for various symptoms related to their cancer, including chronic pain, intractable nausea and vomiting, neuropathy following chemotherapy, and lack of appetite and weight loss. In more than a year, I have not seen any problems related to medical marijuana.

The advisory board that was appointed by state leaders met for four sessions in Montgomery at the State House. These meetings were open to the public. We heard testimony from those opposed and those in favor of medical marijuana. We heard testimony from various medical leaders concerning the benefits for certain incurable diseases that are authorized in surrounding states to receive medical marijuana. We also heard testimony from many patients who are suffering from incurable, chronic diseases for which our current treatments and medicines are ineffective. These patients are going to surrounding states and obtaining medical marijuana and then bringing it back into Alabama to use. Of all the testimony, the one that stands out the most in my recollection is a young basketball coach who had been injured in a motor vehicle accident and was paralyzed from the chest down. He related how he had intractable pain and muscle spasms and nothing relieved his suffering. He now goes to surrounding states and obtains marijuana, which provides him relief. The question he asked the committee is why he, who had been a law-abiding citizen, had to go to surrounding states to obtain medical marijuana and, basically, become a criminal. I and none of the committee members had an answer for his question.

After hearing testimony from the various factions, the committee tried to arrive at a bill and advise the legislature in bringing legislation that will allow patients with certain diagnoses to obtain medical marijuana legally in the state of Alabama. We utilized surrounding states’ programs and tried to learn from their experiences. The diagnoses that we feel would qualify for medical marijuana and which we recommended to the state legislature including the following: Autism disorder; cancer-related cachexia; weight loss and chronic pain; Crohn disease; any condition causing chronic, intractable pain including fibromyalgia and migraines for which treatment was ineffective; epilepsy unresponsive to current medications; HIV/AIDS-related nausea and weight loss; post-traumatic stress disorder; spasticity associated with a motor neuron disease including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury; any terminal illness in which the life expectancy is less than six months or any other medical condition added by the commission by rule based on scientific evidence indicating efficacy in treating the condition or treating the symptoms of the condition.

Patients with these conditions would see an Alabama physician who had taken additional training and was certified by the state Medical Association to certify patients to receive medical marijuana legally. The physician will reassess the patient every three months to ensure that they were benefiting from the treatment.

If this legislation is passed, then the governor, the lieutenant governor, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives will appoint an 11-member board to supervise the program. The medical marijuana program will tax producers and patients using the medication in order to fund the program so that the state does not have any financial responsibility. Members of the commission will meet at least every other month and supervise the program and make adjustments and recommendations to the legislature and governor as needed.

The medical marijuana advisory board tried to listen to those in favor and those opposed to medical marijuana, and also to the patients in Alabama who have terrible, incurable diseases in which they have found benefit from medical marijuana and are asking the state to allow them to use it under the supervision of a physician. If Mr. Williams and others like him who are opposed to medical marijuana in any form, not because of medical evidence but because of a visceral dislike of it, then they should speak with the legislature and try to find compromise so that the patients in Alabama who need medical marijuana to have an improved quality of life will have access to the medication.

These patients in Alabama are desperate. Mr. Williams shared with us the story of the Trojan horse, a Greek fairy tale. Let me share some French history. It is stated that Queen Marie Antoinette and the French King were oppressing the French people with taxes to the point that they could no longer buy food. One of the ministers told Marie Antoinette that the people were too poor to buy bread and were starving. She replied, “If they can’t afford bread, then let them eat cake.” A few months later, they rebelled and cut off her head with the comment, “Even a Queen can’t eat cake without a head.” Desperate people do desperate things.

This is a good bill, and I hope the legislature will work out any differences of opinion and pass some form of the bill so that desperate patients in Alabama can have access to medication that will improve the quality of their lives. Desperate people do desperate acts, and it is unconscionable for us to force patients in these situations to have to go out of state, buy medications that the state of Alabama considers illegal, and they themselves then become criminals. I am more than happy to speak with anyone who has concerns and hope that we will have an open mind to the situation and try to provide some relief for these patients suffering in Alabama.

Steven H. Stokes is a Dothan oncologist.

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