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Coping With a Life Full of Pain


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Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, November 28, 2004 - Page A - 12
Copyright: 2004 San Francisco Chronicle 
Contact: [email protected]

Angel Raich voted for California's Proposition 215 in 1996 because she thought medical marijuana might help others.

Then came the night, a year later, when Raich steered her wheelchair into the bedroom of her sobbing 9-year-old daughter, who asked her, "Why can't you do the things that other mommies do?''

Partially paralyzed, in constant pain from multiple disorders and desperate for help after trying nearly three dozen doctor-prescribed medications, the 30-year-old woman, a product of a conservative upbringing that made her recoil from illegal drugs, decided pot "might be my last shot.''

It worked. Raich regained her appetite, felt less pain, got out of her wheelchair 18 months later and embarked on a career of advocacy for herself and other patients that has led her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, the court will hear the case of Ashcroft vs. Raich, a clash of federal and state powers that could determine the future of medical marijuana in the United States.

Lawyers for Raich and co-plaintiff Diane Monson argue that their use of marijuana -- obtained from within California, without any cost or commercial transaction, under procedures regulated by state law -- is exempt from federal drug laws because the Constitution allows Congress to regulate only interstate commerce.

Government lawyers contend all marijuana use is part of illicit drug traffic that affects interstate commerce. While denying that marijuana has any legitimate use, the government says any claimed medical benefits are legally available in a pill called Marinol, which has the same active ingredient.

Before filing her suit in 2002, Raich tried Marinol. It made her sick.

"I haven't had a pain-free minute in years,'' she said in an interview in the Oakland home she shares with her husband and lawyer, Robert Raich, and her teenage son and daughter from an earlier marriage.

She's suffered back pain from scoliosis and pelvic pain from endometriosis since her teenage years. She became partially paralyzed from an allergic reaction to doctor-recommended birth control pills in 1995.

Since then, she's been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, a seizure disorder and a wasting syndrome. She keeps 98 to 100 pounds on her 5- foot-4 frame only by gorging on high-calorie foods and using marijuana to maintain her appetite.

Medical cannabis, as Raich calls it, doesn't eliminate her pain but makes it "easier to cope. ... I don't get high. There's no euphoric effect. I do not like using it.''

Still, she takes her pipe everywhere, even to the Oakland Police Department, where she's worked with officers on their encounters with medical marijuana patients. She also vaporizes the drug, mixes it with massage oils, or bakes it in zucchini bread, which she eats in large quantities before a rare and agonizing plane trip like her journey to Washington for Monday's hearing.

Raich, now 39, has a doctor's recommendation for marijuana, as required by Prop. 215, and says she needs the medication every two hours. She wakes up in pain every morning and requires help getting out of bed. She uses 8 pounds of marijuana a year and gets it for free from two caregivers -- "my heroes'' -- in thanks for her work as an advocate.

Her previous supplier, an Oakland marijuana cooperative, was shut down by the federal government and challenged the action in court, claiming that federal law allowed it to distribute the drug to gravely ill patients who had no legal alternative. That case also reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in the government's favor in 2001.

Raich, who took part in the case, said she heard Justice Department staffers discussing plans after the hearing to step up their enforcement in California. Determined to stop them, she and her allies decided on a pre- emptive lawsuit -- "my way of putting on a defense without being raided.'' She also enlisted Monson, whose marijuana plants in Oroville (Butte County) had been seized by federal agents in August 2002.

Carrying the banner for thousands of patients in 10 states with medical marijuana laws, Raich professes confidence in her case but reckons the suit has also made her a target, with prosecution and a prison sentence likely if she loses. She said she has her daughter's permission to leave the country if necessary.

"I plan to fight this if it takes my very last breath,'' she said. "It's time for the federal government to stay out of patients' lives.''

Chronicle staff writer Patrick Hoge contributed to this report.

Related Articles & Web Sites:

Raich vs. Ashcroft

Angel Raich v. Ashcroft News

Women Make a New Case for Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana and The Supremes

Medical Marijuana Before Supreme Court



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