A Call For Relief
Talk show host Montel Williams tried to fight back tears Friday as he described to Connecticut lawmakers how he smokes or eats marijuana every day to hold off the spasms and pain caused by multiple sclerosis.
It is the only thing that works, Williams said.
"I have been on everything," Williams, 50, told an audience at the Legislative Office Building. "I've been on morphine to the point where it almost shut down my kidneys. I've been on OxyContin. I've taken six to 12 of those in a day and found myself doing nothing but drooling in a corner crying because I still hurt."
"You only see me one hour a day," Williams said, referring to his daytime, Emmy-award-winning television show. "You didn't see me this morning when I stuck two needles in my body. You won't see me this evening when I stick another one in my body .. none of that in any way, shape or form does anything to mitigate the pain."
Williams was the keynote speaker in a morning press conference organized by supporters of a bill that would allow residents with serious medical conditions to cultivate and use marijuana for palliative purposes when recommended by a practicing physician.
House Bill 6715, known as the Compassionate Use Act, passed the judiciary committee this week in a 32-8 vote. It is expected to be reviewed by several other committees on its way to the House for a vote.
If approved, the law would allow adults with a debilitating condition diagnosed by a physician to grow no more than four marijuana plants, each with a maximum height of 4 feet. The plants must be grown in a secure, indoor facility. Patients need written certification from their physician and must register with the state Department of Public Health. The law defines debilitating medical conditions as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, among others.
Similar measures have repeatedly failed in recent years because of strong opposition from some legislators who say legalizing marijuana - even for medical purposes - sends a wrong message to kids.
"This bill would take our state down a dangerous path," state Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Norwalk, one of the more vocal opponents of the measure, said while testifying before the judiciary committee's vote. "Marijuana is a harmful drug that doesn't save or improve lives. It can undermine the seriously ill's best prospect of recovery and can ruin their life."
Smoking marijuana raises patients' risks of cancer, causes respiratory problems and can increase a person's risk of a heart attack by raising their heart rate, Boucher said. She said there is other medication available currently - including Marinol, which contains derivatives of marijuana - that deliver marijuana's pain-relieving effects without causing the other health problems from smoking it.
But Williams said people react to medication differently. Marinol is not as effective for him as smoking or eating the cannabis, he said.
"For me, marijuana stops my spasticity and reduces my pain from a six to about a four," Williams said. "Some people say they are concerned about the euphoria effect. ... I don't get the rush. I don't get high. It just blocks my pain."
For Williams, smoking marijuana has become a way of life.
"Before I walked in here, I smoked pot," Williams said. "The pain in my feet is starting to rise again, and I have to stay ahead of it. I have to pray local law enforcement gives me a right of passage back to [New York] because when I walk out of here, I will smoke pot."
Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system, in 1999.
Mark Braustein of Waterford said he started using marijuana after being paralyzed in a diving accident in 1990. Like Williams, he said smoking marijuana regularly helps him cope with the involuntary spasms and intractable pains that sometimes feel "like ice picks with electrodes attached."
A frequent visitor to the Capitol to lobby for legalizing marijuana, Braustein was critical of legislators' inability to pass the law.
"It seems to me that I'm not the only one around here suffering from paralysis," said Braustein, a librarian at Connecticut College in New London.
Eleven states have passed medical marijuana bills into law, including Vermont and Rhode Island. New Mexico's legislature passed medical marijuana legislation last week. The act now sits on Gov. Bill Richardson's desk waiting to be signed into law. New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Alabama are considering similar acts.
Connecticut proponents are optimistic about the bill's passage this year.
"I feel that legislators are at a place where they want to act compassionately about this law," said state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, one of the bill's sponsors.
Bacchiochi said the issue is not about legalizing drugs. It's about keeping those who seek compassionate care for treating crippling diseases out of jail.
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