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Guilford County lawmaker proposes joint study

by Amy Kingsley

Mitchell Luna takes three pills every morning to protect his cells from the HIV he contracted a decade ago.

There’s Epivir, which prevents the virus from turning into DNA and replicating. Isentress just protects healthy DNA, preventing its infiltration by the rogue genes. And Reyataz blocks a substance called protease, which renders any HIV proteins that are produced useless.

Each drug belongs to a class, and each class has an acronym. They are, in order, NRTIs, PIs and IIs – nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitors and integrase inhibitors.

Luna, who adopted a pseudonym for this article, also suffers from HIV-related neuropathy that he treats with the painkillers Cymbalta, Percocet and morphine. Muscle relaxants dull the back pain caused by degenerative disc disease. Every evening at dinnertime he repeats his anti-HIV regimen and follows it with an occasional Lunesta for insomnia.

It’s a daunting pharmacological diet. But it’s not enough.

“There are some days I’m in so much pain that smoking weed is the only thing that gets me out of bed,” Luna said.

Luna used to live in Brooklyn, NY where his HIV doctor prescribed weed to treat common symptoms like nausea, body aches and depression.

“The only thing he said he worried about were the respiratory side effects,” Luna said. “Other than that, he prescribed it like any other medicine.”

When he moved to Winston-Salem a year ago, Luna lost access to his best medicine. New York lawmakers had decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but people caught with the same amount in North Carolina face a misdemeanor – even if they use it to alleviate pain.

But that could change. Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford) filed a bill this session that would authorize a joint House and Senate study of medical marijuana. If the study happens, legislators could consider as early as January amending state laws to allow patients like Luna access to medical marijuana.

“I think it would be good public policy to take a look at the issue,” Jones said. “It might really help people who suffer from pain.”

Jones enlisted at least one heavy hitter in his campaign to convince members of the health committee to support the study. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the US surgeon general from 1992 to 1994, spoke in support of medical marijuana in a presentation to the committee on June 25.

Dr. Laura Hanson, an aging specialist at the University of North Carolina, preceded Elders with her own presentation on the use of marijuana as a medical treatment. Marijuana – cannabis in medical parlance – hasn’t been studied extensively enough to determine its exact clinical usefulness, Hanson wrote in an e-mail. However there are some studies on Marinol, a synthetic cannabis sold as a pill.

“Other medical cannabinoids have good evidence for treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea, some evidence for treatment of spasticity related to multiple sclerosis, and limited evidence that they might treat some forms of pain,” she wrote.

The downside, medically-speaking, is that side effects like euphoria and dry mouth are more common among marijuana users than opioid users.

“But depending on the individual patient’s situation,” she wrote, “the benefits may outweigh the side effects.”

For Luna, the medical benefits of marijuana outweighed the dangers of wading into the neighborhoods where drug dealers lurk. When he could find them, the dealers would hook him up, or sell him schwag and, on occasion, take his money and run.

So he came up with his own solution. the Triad Alternative Horticulture Group, as he calls it, is open to anyone who believes they might benefit from medical marijuana treatment. Each member is expected to keep a marijuana plant in his home so that the group can pool resources and distribute risk.

The group is in its earliest stages and so far cancer patients and at least one man permanently disabled in a car accident have written to him, with the bulk of the group comprised of HIV-positive individuals like Luna. All of them, no matter what their story, risk arrest for their participation in the group.

“It’s just ridiculous nonsense for sick people to worry about getting arrested for trying to find the medicine they need,” Luna said.

Jones said he’s trying to serve members of the public, particularly those suffering from diseases like HIV and cancer, by promoting legislation that would make medical marijuana an option for patients and physicians.

“Not having medical marijuana available for those suffering extreme pain is appalling,” he said. “Twelve states already have legislation that makes medical marijuana legal and we should at least study what twelve other states have done on this issue.”

Maine and Vermont are the only two states on the East Coast with active medical marijuana programs, although legislators in New York recently revisited the issue. The Republican-led New York Senate failed to bring the issue to a vote during the last session.

Jones said fellow his fellow legislators have been noticeably timid on the medical marijuana issue. Only three agreed to cosponsor the legislation, House Joint Resolution 2405, including Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), Rep. Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance) and Rep. Walter Church III (D-Burke).

“Privately, a lot of them are coming to me and saying this is an issue that needs to be looked at,” Jones said. “But so many legislators on both sides of the aisle say it’s an issue they can’t touch.”

The resolution will be considered along with about three-dozen others for inclusion in an omnibus study bill to be approved by House and Senate leadership at the end of the session. Jones said the bill usually includes about 15 study bills that are then passed along to the legislative research commission. If the medical marijuana study is approved, representatives and senators will be briefed on its findings so both houses get up to speed at the same time, Jones said.

At the same time, Mitchell and his group plan to do some lobbying of their own, Beyond providing the marijuana its members say they need, the Triad Alternative Horticulture Group aims to support legislation like Jones’ that may someday make the group obsolete.

Doing so, however, may raise the group’s profile in the meantime in ways that attract unwanted scrutiny. To protect himself and the other members, Luna developed a protocol of erasing every message that arrives in the group’s e-mail box after he prints it out.

“Already I’m afraid to go to the library,” he said. “I’m afraid to use Google because some government Nazi will send some federal thugs after me.”

Luna has been struggling with debilitating pain since he aggravated his back helping his father tear down an old doghouse. The injury has kept him on the couch for the past few weeks.

Before that he noticed increased bruising on his skin. His doctors said his T-cell count is good, but his platelets… those are a different story. So Luna protects himself the same way a person twice his age would – by avoiding anything that might compromise the fragile state of his health.

“It’s about maintenance,” Luna said. “I have to take good care of myself and I have to take as many precautions as the elderly. I can’t be around a baby if it’s sick. This disease is still a killer – it’s just killing much more slowly.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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