A pitch for pot's power to ease pain

March 03, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

After smoking a little marijuana, Erin Hildebrandt feels good again. Overwhelming pain goes away for a while.

"It's one or two puffs, then I put it away," she said.

Vomiting, abdominal cramps, muscle spasms, chills, bloody diarrhea and fever are symptoms of Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel condition Hildebrandt has.

"It completely drains me," said Hildebrandt, 32, of Smithsburg.

With her husband, Bill, and their five children waiting in the hall, Hildebrandt testified in Annapolis last week before the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, urging passage of a bill allowing marijuana for medical use.

The bill failed last year, but it may have a better chance this year.

Hildebrandt said she considers marijuana a medicine, which is why she overcame her hesitancy and spoke up.

"I just can't stand back and watch more and more people thrown in jail for this and see their lives turned upside down," she said.


It is illegal in Maryland to smoke marijuana for pleasure or to relieve pain. But advocates say it's a safe drug and less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, of which society allows the use.

Opponents argue that medicinal use is only an excuse to legalize an illicit drug.

MedChi - The Maryland State Medical Society, which represents more than 6,000 physicians and their patients, has asked two state Senate committees to reject the bill.

"While physicians are supportive of any therapy to relieve pain in their patients," the group's position paper said, "MedChi is not aware of any scientific or peer reviewed literature indicating that marijuana has the benefit contemplated by the legislation without having detrimental impact as well. ...

"While the active ingredient in marijuana (THC) can be effective in relieving pain, this ingredient can be obtained in oral form in a legal manner by prescription without involving the adverse agents that are also present in the marijuana cigarette."

'Outright confusion'

MedChi Executive Director Michael Preston said the General Assembly could create "outright confusion" by allowing medicinal marijuana use when the federal government prohibits it.

That was the conflict in California, where Brian Epis was sentenced to 10 years in prison for growing marijuana plants that would have been used by sick people. The state allowed what he did, but the federal government prosecuted him.

Erin and Bill Hildebrandt became active in the cause about a year ago, attending marijuana rallies and bringing their children. The couple protested Epis' plight at a rally in Washington last year. Bill Hildebrandt was ticketed and fined $50 for ignoring three warnings from police, his wife said.

Fearing the fallout, Erin Hildebrandt will not say if she smokes marijuana now.

"I'd rather not hand them a warrant," she said.

This is what she imagines could happen: "I'm picturing that I would get my medicine, then armed men in masks would burst in. My babies would be screaming about me being taken away to God knows where for God knows how long ... just because I said I have used it."

Also about a year ago, the Hildebrandts started a Web site, There, Erin muses on the discomfort of seeing police officers blanketing the nation's roads and on the injustice of the prohibition of marijuana.

"I'm a parent," she wrote. "My first duty is to my children and keeping them safe and healthy.

"More than half of high school students today have experimented with drugs at some time," she wrote. "This means that at least three of my five children are at risk of being turned into criminals and losing their basic human rights and freedoms because of the 'war on drugs.'"

Initially afraid

Hildebrandt said she probably tried marijuana the first time just after she graduated from high school.

"I was still afraid of it," she said. "I had bought into all the propaganda, just like everybody else."

But she rebelled, tried marijuana and decided it isn't dangerous.

It became an "on again, off again" interest when she attended Lansing Community College in Michigan. Students would get together to smoke pot and discuss philosophy, and she would join in.

She turned to marijuana for pain relief around 1996, when a friend told her it might ease the migraine headaches she's had most of her life. It did, she said.

In 1999, when the Hildebrandts moved from Michigan to Smithsburg, Erin found that marijuana also could soothe the symptoms of her Crohn's disease. Until then, she said, prescription drugs either didn't work or caused other problems.

Hildebrandt said she gave up using marijuana recreationally about eight years ago, when she became pregnant for the first time.

Asked when she last smoked marijuana, Hildebrandt wouldn't be specific.

"It's been a while," she answered twice, explaining that she doesn't need it now.

She said her Crohn's disease is "under control" and she hasn't taken prescription drugs for it in about seven years. She hasn't been to the hospital for her migraine headaches in three years after previously going up to three times a week.

Hildebrandt said she teaches her children - Daniel, 8; Thomas, 6; Jessamine, 5; Billy, 3; and Juliet, 1 - to try a cold compress, a massage or lying down in a dark room before asking for a pain reliever for a headache.

For adults, she said, marijuana can also ease pain.

"It's a medicine ... that can be used or abused ...," she said. "I'm behind ending the mass hysteria behind marijuana. It's not the bogeyman of illicit drugs."

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