Bad Medicine

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Bad Medicine

The state may allow marijuana use for medical purposes, but there is still strong opposition. Should a pot-smoking paraplegic go to jail then?

By Jennifer Abel

There’s this guy Mark Braunstein in Waterford who’s living the intellectual hippie-Bohemian dream life: He’s on the faculty at a small artsy college, has a cool book-lined apartment in the school’s Arboretum, and is ignored by the cops even though they know he smokes pot two or three times a week.

But here’s the snake in his Eden: a 1990 diving accident left Braunstein paralyzed from the waist down (though he can walk after a fashion with crutches). Local law enforcement overlooks his marijuana use because it suppresses the painful and debilitating muscle spasms in his legs.

Now the state might pass into law a bill known as the Compassionate Use Act, allowing sufferers of certain conditions to treat their symptoms with marijuana. The law’s passage would make Connecticut the thirteenth state to allow medical marijuana, and guys like Braunstein wouldn’t need the cops’ sufferance to smoke anymore than they do to down an aspirin.

Not that Braunstein would. “I don’t do pharmaceutical drugs,” he says. “That’s the main reason I went straight to pot” after the accident. Pun intentional, but what’s he got against mainstream medication?

“Pfizer’s near here,” he said, motioning toward his window. “You go look at it at night, and it’s like something out of Dante’s Inferno. … Marijuana is a natural herb. Smoking’s not natural, but neither is swallowing a pill. At least with marijuana I have control over what I put in my body.”

But some say what he puts there is best left illegal. State representative Toni Boucher is an ardent opponent of the Compassionate Use Act. When asked why Braunstein shouldn’t smoke though it makes him feel better, Boucher said “[Marijuana] is an illegal substance and he has many alternatives.”

True. Yet Braunstein says marijuana works so well for him that a small dose every two or three days is all he needs to treat both his spasms and the pain. Also, he’s one of those vegan-granola types who won’t even eat white sugar, and brags that he’s taken “pharmaceuticals” only four times since his accident: three during surgeries and once to treat a pinched nerve. If he prefers a natural chemical like THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, to various artificial ones, why should anyone care?

“There’s a [legal] pill that does the same thing marijuana does,” Boucher replies. And so there is: Marinol, THC in pill rather than plant form. Therefore (Boucher continued), there’s no need to rely on the plant kingdom for your medicinal needs. After all, “We have aspirin, which comes from the bark of a tree. Should people stop taking aspirin and start chewing tree bark instead?”

Probably not. But if Braunstein eats willow bark rather than aspirin, why should he go to prison?

“[Marijuana] is a Schedule I drug. It’s against the law,” Boucher replied during an interview. It’s also bad for you: “If you want to continue to live well, you have to find a different way. … [Marijuana] ruins lives.”

Maybe so, but putting sick people in prison so they can’t destroy their lives sounds self-defeating. Why does Boucher support it?

Because, she says, it’s bad for children and young teens to smoke marijuana. And she’s correct, but what has that to do with Braunstein? Kids shouldn’t drink booze either, but Braunstein can.

You can’t compare marijuana to legal alternatives like alcohol and Marinol, Boucher says. “It can cause cancer and respiratory problems.”

Boucher fears if the Compassionate Use Act passes, marijuana will make sick people sicker and snare children into self-destruction. That’s why, where medical marijuana is concerned, “there’s more harm than good in promoting it.”

And so it went: why should it be illegal for Braunstein to smoke? Because marijuana’s bad for you. So bad those who smoke it should go to jail? Yes, because it’s against the law. Why? Because it’s bad for you.

How long did Boucher think that paralyzed guy at the college should spend in prison?

There followed a long silence broken by Boucher’s response: “That’s a ludicrous question.”

Indeed it is, but the law makes it relevant. If Braunstein deserves prison, then for how long? Boucher says that’s not for a legislator to decide: “We’re not the judiciary.”

In Connecticut, first-time possession of four ounces (two or three spice jars) is a felony punishable by up to five years. But that’s negotiable, unless possession occurs within a third-of-a-mile radius of a school (the “drug-free school zone.”) Possession in a school zone mandates a two-year minimum sentence, and Boucher strongly supports drug-free school zone laws.

An agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency was willing to speak on the record about the importance of upholding anti-marijuana laws, but when asked how long guys like Braunstein should be in jail the agent went off the record to say that the DEA wouldn’t likely arrest a paraplegic for smoking pot in his house.

That’s good news for Braunstein. But when those charged with upholding the law refuse to on moral grounds, might that raise questions about the morality of the law itself?

No matter. According to opponents of the Compassionate Use Act, some questions are so ludicrous they’re better left unasked.