One man's tragedy shows why senator introduced bill

June 14, 2005 - Jessica Shapiro hold sa picture of her late fianceé, Sean McGrath, lighting up a joint in the hospital during his two-year battle with cancer.

Sean McGrath was 28 years old when he died. He would have been younger, his family says, had he not smoked marijuana for much of his two-year battle with biliary cancer, the illness that ravaged his digestive system and eventually killed him.

"Unless he was sleeping, he was nauseous," says Jessica Shapiro, Sean's fianceé, who began dating him shortly after the two graduated from high school in Hamilton.

Within four months of Sean's diagnosis, his weight had spiraled down to 98 pounds, about 60 pounds underweight for his 5'11" frame. Even if Sean did manage to ingest food and his pills - appetite stimulants, painkillers and anti-nausea medication - he would usually vomit them back up.

Heeding the advice of friends and family who suggested that marijuana might help, Sean discovered that taking a couple of puffs of pot before eating or taking pills countered his constant gagging and vomiting. Within months, his weight rose to 128 pounds. By using the one drug that provided relief, Sean was prolonging his life, says his father, Don McGrath.

He was also breaking the law.

"It was an insult that he was forced to be a criminal because of his illness," says his father.

State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, couldn't agree more. That's why, earlier this year, he introduced Senate Bill No. 2200, "New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act." And it's why he stands by his bill, even after last week's Supreme Court ruling that federal officials could arrest marijuana users like Sean McGrath.

S2200 would protect from state and local prosecution patients diagnosed by a physician to have a debilitating illness, including cancer and HIV/AIDS, who register to use marijuana for medical purposes through the Department of Health and Senior Services. Ten states, including California, Colorado, Montana, Maine and Vermont, have passed similar laws. Whether that is a good or a bad thing - and whether New Jersey should pursue such a law - depends on whom you ask.

"We're not saying that we're trying to legalize drugs," Scutari says. "We're trying to legalize them for a specific purpose, which would be for people who are suffering from debilitating illnesses. I say to critics, why wouldn't we try this?"

John Coleman, director of the International Drug Strategy Institute, a division of Drug Watch International, and a retired assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has at least one reason.

"Because there's no objective evidence that there's any serious benefit in this drug," he said, adding that individual stories like Sean McGrath's equate to "anecdotal evidence."

In 1999, the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) released a report on the value of marijuana, widely viewed as the most comprehensive to date. "Scientific data," the report concluded, "indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation; smoked marijuana, however, is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances."

IOM is a non-profit policy organization that uses committees of volunteer scientists - leading national and international experts - to report on matters of biomedical science, medicine and health.

That conclusion means different things to different people. Advocates of S2200 and other state medical marijuana laws say the IOM report equates to an official acknowledgement of marijuana's therapeutic value. Those opposed to marijuana legalization say the report shows that further research into marijuana delivery systems is necessary before moving forward with any legislation.

According to a report from the Department of Justice (DOJ), "Say it Straight: the Medical Myths of Marijuana:" "Marijuana is an unstable mixture of more than 425 chemicals that convert to thousands when smoked. Many of these chemicals are toxic, psychoactive chemicals which are largely unstudied and appear in uncontrolled strengths."

The first time Sean McGrath tried pot, it was baked inside a homemade brownie - but he was too sick to eat it. Smoking marijuana was the only way he could get the drug into his system. His fianceé, Jessica Shapiro, isn't compelled by arguments about the harmful effects of smoked marijuana when it comes to patients like Sean.

"It's all so absurd," she said. "He was filled with cancer."

Beyond concerns about marijuana's potential harmful effects, critics of S2200 worry that legalization for the sick will open the floodgates to recreational pot-smoking among youth. Plus, they argue, states overextend their rights with such laws, and effectively undermine federal prohibition of marijuana.

In essence, that was the issue at hand in the recent Supreme Court decision stipulating that, even in states where certain marijuana-users are protected from local and state prosecution, they might still be prosecuted under federal law, which labels marijuana a "Schedule 1" drug, one with no medicinal value.

Even as advocacy groups support state medical marijuana laws, some set their sights on Congress. There, they hope marijuana will be reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug, along with medications such as morphine and oxycontin, which can be prescribed by a doctor.

A bill pending in Congress would provide for that reclassification, though it's widely believed that there is little chance of it passing, especially given the Supreme Court decision. If Congress did eventually pass such a bill, it would mean that states with legislation like S2200 on the books would no longer be in contradiction of federal law.

Thus far, however, that contradiction has been more symbolic than practical.

The DEA, the federal entity responsible for drug-related prosecution doesn't primarily target people like Sean McGrath. Although the DEA rejects the term "medical marijuana," stating that the drug's therapeutic value has not been scientifically substantiated, "We target organizations," says William Grant, public affairs specialist for the DEA in Washington, D.C., adding, "Our mission statement is not going to change."

Pointing out that marijuana arrests account for 45 percent of the 1.5 million drug arrests annually, some advocates of medical marijuana argue that government organizations such as the DOJ and the DEA fight legalization because of the impact it might have on "War on Drugs" statistics.

But according to Grant, of the DEA, "We're not an arrest-driven organization. Our mission is to disrupt and dismantle organizations and take away their means - which is their money and their property - so they can't distribute any narcotics."

In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, advocates of S2200 press forward, arguing that marijuana is less harmful and addictive than some prescription drugs. Patients and doctors, they say, should have control over personal health care choices.

"It's a matter of compassion and allowing doctors and patients to have the best possible medical options they can have," says Roseanne Scotti, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, New Jersey. "If the doctor thinks that medical marijuana would be medically appropriate for someone, it's a matter of letting the state get out of the way and letting the doctor do their job."

Advocates point out that a number of medical organizations support some form of physician-supervised access to the drug for medicinal purposes, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Nurses Association and the American Public Health Association.

"If we were talking about any drug other than cannabis (marijuana), we wouldn't be having this discussion," says Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a non-profit advocacy group that supports universal legalization of pot. "This is a drug that has been studied to death, it's medical value has been studied to death, and yet we're having this discussion because there is a cultural stigma associated with marijuana among some individuals in America - primarily politicians - who have the ability to outlaw this substance."

But the public has sent a clear message to its legislators. A CNN/Time poll published in October 2002 found that 80 percent of Americans believe that adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it. That's on par with polls taken over the last decade, which have consistently shown between 55 percent and 85 percent support for legal access to marijuana for so-called medicinal purposes.

When it comes down to the ground level, for Sean McGrath, smoking pot wasn't about opinion polls or the contradiction between state and federal laws. For Sean, "this wasn't a political thing," says Jessica Shaprio. "His attitude was, 'I'm really sick and this makes me feel better.' He felt extremely practical about it. And mad that it wasn't allowed. Because it worked."

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