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Infuriating the Joint

Greg Scott cannot be rehabilitated. He is an incorrigible outlaw who regularly flouts the law and commits a drug-related crime as often and as easily as most people eat a meal.

But he's never been arrested for breaking that law. Instead he landed in an Orlando jail cell two weeks ago for exercising his constitutional right to speak out at a publicly funded conference, where he attempted to explain how breaking the law every day, four times a day for the past three years, has saved his life.

At the two-day public conference -- which was funded by $64,000 in taxpayer money and boasted a hit parade of top political figures -- Scott learned that merely talking about a political point of view was more likely to land him in the slammer than committing an actual crime.

The point of the conference, cosponsored by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and two conservative Florida-based drug prevention organizations, was to inform Florida residents and law enforcement officials about the dangers of legalizing marijuana for medical use.

The conference was a countermove to the political actions of a Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit, of which Scott is an active member, called the Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana (CAMM). The coalition seeks an amendment to Florida's constitution that would legalize pot use for medical purposes. To do so CAMM must first put the issue on a statewide ballot, which requires gathering 435,000 signatures on a petition. CAMM has roughly 35,000 signatures to date, and has given itself until August 1, 2000, to gain the remainder of the support. Similar laws have existed in California and Arizona since November 1996.

Some doctors and patients with glaucoma and cancer credit marijuana with helping to reduce pain, lessen the side effects of the medicines, increase appetite, and quell nausea. And as Scott well knows, marijuana can be used to help AIDS patients. He burns up to two marijuana joints a day to fight the side effects of the protease inhibitors he takes as treatment for the disease.

At a fit 175 pounds, Scott, age 36, hardly appears to be suffering from a life-threatening illness. Although he is retired from his job as a TV writer, he boarded a plane last week for a two-week trip to Washington and then New York to address members of the United Nations in an effort to spread the word that for some people, cannabis can be a lifesaver.

Just three years ago, however, Scott says he was near death, wasting away at 130 pounds. Lesions had spread over his entire body. He suffered from severe diarrhea and pain in his hands and joints. And he was unable to ingest the 40 or more pills a day required simply to keep him alive.

"I smoked pot every day," he said in a speech in November at the Broward Convention Center. "And the pot calmed my stomach against handfuls of pills. The pot made me hungry so I could eat without a tube. The pot eased the pain of crippling neural side effects so I could dial the phone by myself. The pot calmed my soul and allowed me to accept that I would probably soon die."

Scott is convinced that marijuana saved his life. It allowed him to live long enough to see the advance of protease inhibitors, which are HIV patients' most effective weapon against the disease. He is so convinced of pot's lifesaving capabilities that he is willing to be arrested for his crime of smoking it. But until Scott, a Fort Lauderdale resident, attended the Orlando conference with members of CAMM, he had never been jailed for any reason, he says.

The conference, held May 27 and 28, was paid for with $64,000 of public money from a grant distributed through Florida's Department of Community Affairs drug-control program. The money went toward 300 hotel rooms and accommodations.

The seminar included an impressive array of speakers, Scott says, including former U.S. drug czar William Bennett, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Orlando), Drug Enforcement Administration chief Tom Constantine, and...

Scott admits his frequent drug use causes him short-term memory loss.
... ah yes, Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham.
Although the seminar was open to the public and publicly funded, the distinguished deck of panelists was intentionally loaded against the CAMM group and Scott was hushed every time he tried to present his point of view. During one morning session, Scott asked Bennett if he thought arresting patients was a way to build a virtuous America -- a sly reference to Bennett's 1993 book, The Book of Virtues. Bennett ignored the question.

By afternoon Scott's protestations grew louder. So much so, in fact, that he received two separate verbal warnings from hotel security guards, one for answering a rhetorical question posed in a speech by Gary Cohan, one of the nation's leading HIV/AIDS doctors, and again for applauding in the middle of his speech. Cohan spoke against medical marijuana but noted the importance of maintaining the patient-doctor relationship.

"I applauded very loudly," concedes Scott with mock repentance, "and I guess I was the only one."

A few minutes later, during a question-and-answer period, Scott approached the podium and inquired how the seminar panel could advocate arresting patients who use marijuana for medical purposes. When hotel security led him away from the podium, Scott shouted, "That's exactly what you're doing. You're saying 'Arrest the patients.'"

Hotel security and the Orange County sheriff's deputies on hand arrested him for disorderly conduct. He spent thirteen hours in jail and posted $500 bond, but Scott has a name for the real crime that took place: a violation of his constitutional right to free speech.

With CAMM's assistance Scott has enlisted an Orlando civil rights attorney, Richard Wilson, who agreed to take the free-speech case on a pro bono basis. From Wilson's perspective, Scott should have never been arrested for speaking out at a political event. For that matter, he notes, taxpayer dollars should not have been used to present a one-sided political argument.

"It is entirely inappropriate," Wilson argues, "for the government to be spending tax dollars -- and my client's tax dollars -- on a political issue on which it has taken sides."

Still, event organizers stand by the decision to prohibit CAMM from airing its views. Despite the forum's billing as a "Marijuana Education Summit," the assembly was never meant to be an open discussion of ideas, says Betty Sembler, the founder of Drug-Free America, a nonprofit group that helped put the event together, and Save Our Society, a political organization.

Instead, she says, the goal was to explain the dangers of marijuana, and present scientific data supporting her belief that the drug is not medicine. Evidence to the contrary from researchers, doctors, and Scott himself was not considered factual and was therefore inconsequential.

"It wasn't about their opinions," she states bluntly. "It wasn't about anyone's point of view except for the people that were there."

Sembler's unyielding assertion was the prevailing sentiment at the Orlando education summit. Tim Moore, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, came right out and stated the meeting's political intent: Keep the medical marijuana argument "fact based," and keep the issue off the Florida ballot.

A constitutional amendment, he insists, will only lead to widespread marijuana use, particularly among teenagers, who will find drugs easier to obtain and come to believe that drugs are safe and possibly even glamorous.

Moore also believes the medical marijuana lobby is simply a well-financed ploy to open the doors to full-scale drug legalization. As evidence, he lists the financially sound pro-pot campaign in California, which is sure to make its way to Florida any day now.

"The money has not shown up here yet," Moore admits, from his office in Tallahassee. "But it's coming."

In contrast, he says, his own political interest doesn't have a lot of money to fight against medical marijuana.

"All we have," he says in a down-home Southern accent, "is the faith and trust of all Floridians."

Of course the FDLE also has taxpayer money. And the power to arrest those who disagree with its version of the facts, as presented at the summit.

Among the most salient of these facts, according to Moore, is that a legal alternative to smoking marijuana already exists in the form of a prescription drug called Marinol, a synthetic pill that offers some of the same medicinal effects as marijuana.

But Marinol has its drawbacks, Scott contends. For one thing he can't control the dosage as easily with the pill as he can by smoking a joint. Also, the medicine he takes causes vomiting, an effect marijuana is meant to mitigate. If he's vomiting, he asks, how can he ingest yet another pill?

But Scott's no dope; aside from that simple argument, he and his doctors have facts of their own.

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Health, a federally funded health research agency, give anecdotal evidence demonstrating marijuana's ability to reduce and relieve pain and nausea, according to Scott's local doctor, Ralph Liporace.

While Liporace, a Pompano Beach internist, hasn't directly instructed his HIV and AIDS patients to commit a crime by buying a bag of weed, he has told them that some patients have felt the beneficial side effects of the now-illegal drug.

"As a physician I'm licensed to give prescriptions for far more harmful products than marijuana," he maintains. "I can write for morphine, I can write for opium, I can write for cocaine. I mean, give me a break -- I can't prescribe a joint?"

According to the panel at the publicly funded event, the answer to that question is a flat "No." No exceptions. No questions asked.

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Michael Freedman

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