When Issues Converge: The Pot Conference
by Fred Gardner, April 28, 2010
Patients Out Of Time is a pro-cannabis reform group led by Al Byrne, a retired Naval officer, and MaryLynn Mathre, a Vietnam era nurse. Al survived two catastrophic events in which others died and over the years he's had to deal with post-traumatic stress. He calls it PTS not PTSD. “It's not a disorder, it's a rational response to what you've seen,” he explains.
Al's a big, tall man who played outfield for Notre Dame before he went off to war. He has spent years counseling vets in Appalachia for the Department of Veterans' Affairs Agent Orange Class Assistance Program. MaryLynn, who goes by ML, is an addictions consultant. Her publications include “Cannabis and Harm Reduction: A Nursing Perspective,” in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. They are married and based in Virginia.
Al and ML had been active in NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) but split off in 1994. (Everyone's faction fights seem oh-so avoidable but one's own.) In 1995 they formed their own group with participation from Irvin Rosenfeld, Elvy Musikka, George McMahon, and several other surviving patients from the federal Investigative New Drug program. They could have called it Patients Out Of Patience but the abbreviation wouldn't have worked.
Since 2000 Patients Out Of Time has organized a conference every two years to update doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers — none of whom heard a word during their schooling about the medical uses of cannabis or the body's endogenous cannabinoid signaling system — about recent research and clinical findings. The University of California at San Francisco and the Rhode Island Nurses Association offered continuing education credits to MDs and nurses attending this year's conference which was held at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick, Rhode Island, April 16-17. Twelve nurses and more than 30 doctors registered for credit. Al Byrne estimates there were another 40 “allied professionals such as social workers.” Total attendance was more than 225. Whereas previous conferences have been Californi-centric, this one drew folks from Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Montana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and of course, Rhode Island.
All the talks will be online at medicalcannabis.com as soon as Ervin Dorgan and his first-rate crew process their footage. We will report on the talks in more detail in the near future.
The state chapter of Disabled Veterans of America was meeting at the Crowne Plaza at the same time as the pro-cannabis reformers. DAV had a registration table set up in the lobby. There was a vet selling raffle tickets. I bought 12 for 10 bucks and gave him a copy of O'Shaughnessy's, our pro-cannabis journal. I said if I won, instead of the prize I wanted our groups to hold a joint session. He was all for it, he said (lowering his voice and looking towards a man down the line) but didn't think the commander would be.
Over the next two days we got to meet some of the DAV members and it turns out that, just like during the war, almost all the GIs smoke pot when it's available, while the brass (supposedly) look down on it. That's how it was in “the day” and that's how it is to this day! The men who were GIs and NCOs in Vietnam seemed as deferential — maybe more deferential — now than they were when they were young. At least that was so for this small sample of DAV members. I made friends and smoked with two of them (one of whom had his own stash). On the afternoon of the second day, ML Mathre went running through the Crowne Plaza as Mike Krawitz started a talk about the Veterans Administration line on medical marijuana. She came back with three DAV members in tow. Six more soon followed.
Krawitz is an Air Force vet who aspired to be a helicopter pilot. He was severely injured in the 1980s, retired on disability, and was cared for at VA hospitals without incident until 2004, when he was presented with a “pain contract” which required drug testing. He refused to sign and his doctor withdrew his prescription for opioids.
According to Krawitz, “the pain contract and its associated drug-testing provisions violate the veteran's Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable search. It violates the Fifth Amendment in that the veteran is forced to testify against him/herself by submitting to drug tests. And it violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection-under-the-law clause because the whole thing is targeted at pain patients.
“I receive calls every week from veterans across the country who are in great pain and the VA has terminated their pain treatment because they tested positive for marijuana. Access to pain treatment is a right, not a privilege. When a doctor withholds a prescription for pain meds to coerce someone to sign a pain contract, or in reaction to a positive urinalysis for marijuana, the doctor is seeing the medical treatment as a reward that can be taken away. Untreated and even under treated pain is torture.
“Some clinics outside the VA have stopped all prescribing of opioid pain medications for fear of the DEA and many now deny their patients access to pain treatment if they use medical marijuana even if it's legal under state law. The medical reality is, cannabis is as an adjunct treatment to opioids; it reduces the amount of opioids needed to achieve adequate pain reduction. This synergistic effect of cannabis and opioids would allow vets to reduce opioid intake while experiencing better pain relief without as many negative side effects. This is what veterans need, are looking for, and deserve.
“Post traumatic stress and long-term nerve-related pain are common afflictions among veterans. Both are difficult to treat with the pills available but respond particularly well to cannabis. In New Mexico, with 1,188 active patients in the Department of Health's Medical Cannabis Program, PTSD is the most commonly cited of the 16 specifically allowed medical conditions.”
One of our new friends confided that he hopes to be elected DAV state commander so he's keeping his pro-cannabis politics hidden. MaryLynn said, “It's your organization; the majority are for it; why not make access to medical marijuana your demand as a candidate? Disabled Veterans of America should have a strong pro-cannabis poisiton.”
The vet just repeated, “I've worked for this for a long time.”
The disconnect is obvious: a majority of the rank-and-file are pro-cannabis but the candidate is afraid to reveal his pro-cannabis outlook. What causes the disconnect? Fear — a vague, pervasive fear of the brass. ¥¥
(Fred Gardner edits O'Shaughnessy's, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)