Amid Indian drumbeats and singing, protesters on the Capitol steps Tuesday sent a prayer to the heavens and to the Wisconsin Legislature, asking for the right to use their medicine — marijuana.

The Day of Prayer for Compassion ceremony, hosted by legalization advocacy groups Is My Medicine Legal YET and the Wisconsin branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, met to help convince members of the Senate and Assembly to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons.

The bill, currently pending in the Wisconsin Legislature, is the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, which would allow for the use and growth of medicinal cannabis in the treatment of certain illnesses.

Among the speakers present were Gary Storck, president of Wisconsin NORML and spokesperson for IMMLY, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an Ojibwa Indian performer and others who have diseases for which they say medicinal cannabis is the best option.

“We are here today to raise prayers and awareness in the state Legislature,” Storck said. “We can’t go another (legislative) session without having [medicinal cannabis] legally available to people who can benefit from it.”

What is medicinal cannabis?

James Cleary, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Heath, said in an e-mail to The Badger Herald that cannabinoids — a group of hydrocarbon compounds present in cannabis and also in animals’ nervous and immune systems — may have the potential to improve certain treatments, but more research is needed.

“Cannabinoids may be a useful addition to the treatment of pain,” Cleary said. “(However) I think we need to explore other ways of delivery other than the smoked version.”

Cleary also recently attended the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Austria, which monitors international dealings and situations concerning narcotics.

According to Cleary, there is a prominent medicine called Sativex under development and trials in the U.S. Sativex, which is already approved for use in Canada, is an oral spray that treats a range of ailments, including cancer-related pains, with its active cannabinoid ingredients tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol — THC and CBD.

“I have prescribed the oral cannabinoids for patients with advanced cancer,” Cleary said in an e-mail. “As an oncologist, I am against approving the smoked version. That is the advantage of the Sativex product at this stage, or a vaporized version (of cannabis).”

A vaporized version entails heating the plant material in a vacuum rather than burning it, thereby reducing the intake of irritants and toxins when inhaled.

One of the problems with the oral version, Cleary said, is that it is difficult to determine the concentration of the dose, and many patients experience adverse side effects.

June Dahl, a UW pharmacology professor who co-chairs the Wisconsin branch of the Alliance of State Pain Initiatives, agreed Sativex is an interesting drug, but added there has not been a lot of research done on medicinal cannabis in general in the U.S.

According to Dahl, one form of pain relief that studies have shown could possibly be helped by medicinal cannabis is neuropathic pain relief.

“Neuropathic pain is very difficult to treat,” Dahl said. “Even with the best of care, about half of people get about 50 percent relief of their pain. The role of [CBD] is interesting.”

Dahl said though it is not yet conclusive how effective medicinal cannabis is for pain relief of certain diseases, the treatment can have a “calming effect” for those who are suffering from ailments like terminal cancer or AIDS.

Like Cleary, Dahl said she is also against the act of smoking marijuana as a treatment, as it triples the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The advantage of the spray, she said, is that it is absorbed quickly into the body for a rapid response.

She added making medicinal cannabis in pill form is difficult because of its solubility but research is underway to resolve the issues.

The legislative issue state and nationwide

The bill JRMMA, authored by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, would offer a medical necessity legal defense for those who are prescribed marijuana for treatment. This means patients holding or growing marijuana would be protected from arrest and prosecution.

JRMMA would also establish a licensing and registry system under the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. DHS would also be given the power to designate which diseases would qualify for the use of medicinal cannabis.

According to Storck, the bill’s namesake, Rickert, started IMMLY after the federal government created the Compassionate Use Investigative New Drug Program in 1978. The program provides its participants a certain number of prescription marijuana cigarettes per month.

Storck said Rickert was approved for the program in 1990 after meeting all the requirements, but the government did not follow through on providing the medication and closed enrollment in the program. Since then, Rickert has been advocating the legalization of medicinal cannabis at a state and national level.

“Jacki was approved in 1990, but they never gave [the marijuana cigarettes] to her, then they closed it to new participants. There were eight participants in it at that time and only four left alive now,” Storck said. “It was basically symbolic.”

Storck said he has been personally involved in medical marijuana legalization bills since 1997. As someone who suffers from numerous afflictions including glaucoma and spasms, Storck said medicinal cannabis offers treatment options that do not come with damaging side effects and allows people to lead productive lives.

Along with pain treatments, Storck said medicinal cannabis also helps those who are suffering from mental afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder, such as veterans returning from action.

Fourteen other states have legalized the use and growth of medicinal cannabis, including California and Michigan.

Erpenbach spokesperson Julie Laundrie said Erpenbach became involved in the issue after talking to many people around the state who said their lives could be better with the use of medicinal cannabis.

“According to our database, 179 constituents support medical marijuana and five constituents oppose,” Laundrie said. “We have gotten lots more contacts on the issue, but (we) only keep track of those from the Senator’s district.”

Storck said Pocan has been involved in introducing medicinal cannabis legalization bills for many years, and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., was also a sponsor when she was a Madison member of the state Assembly before Pocan.

The future of medicinal cannabis in Wisconsin

Laundrie said it is difficult to tell at this point whether the bill will make it out of the Senate and Assembly health committees and to the floor votes before the end of this legislative session in May.

“I think advocates are working with the committee to iron out concerns,” Laundrie said. “There’s a possibility to move it to the floor, but it is a diverse committee that has concerns, and they need to be addressed before a (committee) vote.”

According to Laundrie, Erpenbach does not want to hold a vote until there is more confidence the bill will pass through the committee.

Senate health committee member Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, said a lot of what she has been hearing in committee is that medicinal cannabis is used more for relaxation and comfort than for pain relief.

Lazich also pointed to the fact that the medical community — in particular the Wisconsin Medical Society — does not think medicinal cannabis is more useful than current drugs on the market. She added she supports the idea of more research on the effects of medicinal cannabis.

“When the Food and Drug Administration reach a point that it should be legalized and go through a pharmacy with a prescription … then it will be acceptable, but until there’s a legal prescription with legal pharmacy — same as other drugs — I don’t support it,” Lazich said.

Lazich added the other states that have legalized medicinal cannabis for growth in “pot houses” have had a lot of crime associated with those facilities, and she did not want something similar in Wisconsin.

According to Laundrie, if the bill does not get voted out of committee, it will need to be reevaluated and reintroduced in the next session. She added she is not sure Erpenbach will be part of the reintroduction but emphasized Erpenbach has not changed his position on the issue.

Storck said the timing for legalizing medicinal cannabis is perfect right now, as the Democrats hold the majority in both the Assembly and the Senate, and Gov. Jim Doyle has vocalized support for medicinal cannabis.

He added he was concerned about what would happen if the bill has to be reintroduced next session, as the Republicans may reclaim the majority and there will be a new governor.

“No medical marijuana bill has progressed this far, and now we have a governor willing to sign it. The problem is that Republicans need to support it and we can’t quite get them all,” Storck said. “We’re waiting for them to understand this is not a partisan issue and affects everyone.”