Legislature(2005 - 2006)CAPITOL 120
04/12/2005 08:00 AM JUDICIARY
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* first hearing in first committee of referral
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HB 96 - CRIMES INVOLVING MARIJUANA/OTHER DRUGS 8:44:19 AM CHAIR McGUIRE announced that the next order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 96, "An Act making findings relating to marijuana use and possession; relating to marijuana and misconduct involving a controlled substance; and providing for an effective date." 8:45:02 AM PATRICK SHEEHAN relayed that he suffers from a traumatic brain injury and temporal lobe epilepsy, a rare form of epilepsy, and because of such also suffers from depression, and that his main concern is with regard to what the state is doing for his well- being. Currently, he explained, he cannot work and cannot take antidepressant medication because it conflicts with his anti- seizure medication. He said that he has discovered that marijuana has medical significance for those with depression and disorders similar to those that he suffers from, adding that he has been consuming marijuana for 16 years and has not experienced any of the side affects that previous speakers on the bill have suggested would occur. For him, he explained, marijuana takes the place of antidepressant medication and he is able to control his depression simply through the use of just small amounts of marijuana. 8:49:37 AM MICHAEL "WES" MACLEOD-BALL, Executive Director, Alaska Civil Liberties Union (AkCLU), relayed that the AkCLU and the group, Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control (AMRC), have provided the committee with a roster of witnesses, and asked that those witnesses be allowed to speak in a particular order. 8:51:17 AM BILL PARKER, Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control (AMRC), relayed that his written testimony is included in member's packets. REPRESENTATIVE GARA remarked: The governor has presented this bill; he wants the legislature to make these extreme findings after detailed hearings which, at the end of session, we frankly don't have the time to make. So this bill might move, there might be findings in it, [but] they're, frankly, not going to be findings that are real, [and] they're not going to [be] findings that we've had the time to consider. And I just think, if the governor's going to have a major initiative like this, he's got to expect that we're going to need more time to deal with it. If it's the administration's view that it needs to rush through, then it will rush through, but the findings aren't going to be real, in my view. CHAIR McGUIRE mentioned that it is not her intent to move the bill from committee today. 8:53:21 AM JACK COLE, Executive Director, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), relayed that he is a retired detective lieutenant from the New Jersey State Police, where he'd been working as an undercover narcotics officer for 14 out of 26 years. He went on to say: My investigations spanned the spectrum of possible cases, from street-level drug dealers up to international, billion-dollar, drug-trafficking organizations. ... [Law Enforcement Against Prohibition] was founded by five former cops to give voice to all the members of law enforcement that believe that the war on drugs is not only a dismal failure but is a terribly destructive policy. And in the two and a half years that we've existed, we've grown to over 2,000 members who are no longer just cops - we are police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, [and] we even have retired [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)] officers who help make up our bureau of 85 speakers. What LEAP would like to suggests to you today is that passing bills that raise criminal penalties and assess harsher sentences for nonviolent drug offences is a very poor public policy. In 1975, Alaska started a 15-year trek of decriminalizing adult use of marijuana in the privacy of one's own home. And then ... from 1990 to 2003, they [changed] back to a de facto prohibition, which was reversed again in 2003 until the present, and, again, you've been able to use decriminalized marijuana in your own home. According to Alaska's statistics, overall use of marijuana among children in grades 6 to 12 has decreased from the level of use before that marijuana was decriminalized in 1975. However, [in] the rest of the United States, marijuana use among that age group has increased; according to Monitoring the Future, the largest survey ever done in this country about that, it says that the increase is 30 percent for 12th graders, 65 percent for 10th graders, and 88 percent for 8th graders. MR. COLE continued: So apparently you have been doing something correctly in Alaska. What I'd like to say about this war on drugs is that for 35 years, with a budget of half a trillion dollars, [the] United States has fought the war on drugs with ever harsher penalties and, since the year 2000, we've arrested 1.6 million people in this country for nonviolent drug offences - fully half of those offenses are marijuana violations - and all we have to show for all this money so ill spent ... and all these lives ruined is that today, drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier to get than they were in 1970 when I started buying them undercover. Now, to me, that is the very essence of a failed public policy. What I would like to suggest is, please, please don't pass bills that tie up more police hours in projects that do nothing to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, or drug addiction. Let police get back to protecting us from violent crime; we'll all be much better. Thank you very much. ... 8:56:59 AM DARA AHRENS, after relaying that she has been a certified nursing assistant (CNA) since 1987, said that she has been ... taking care of patients who use medicinal marijuana, including one who got more relief from the pain caused by his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - Lou Gehrig's disease - by using medicinal marijuana than by using 20 cc of morphine, which was the drug doctors prescribed for him. She characterized HB 96 as a backdoor attempt to outlaw medical marijuana. Noting that her life partner has chronic, progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) and can now barely speak, she also mentioned that she and her adult son suffer from severe, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but can't afford the medication normally prescribed for it and yet medicinal marijuana helps her son focus. In conclusion, she opined that the use of medicinal marijuana should be regulated to prevent addiction. MS. AHRENS, in response to questions, offered her belief that marijuana should be considered a [schedule IIA] substance and require a doctor's note in order to use it for medicinal purposes. She said she didn't like to skulk around, adding that her years of care giving have left her with bulging spinal discs, pinched nerves and compression fractures, all of which cause her extreme pain; occasional use of medicinal marijuana provides her with more relief from that pain than does the Percocet she has been prescribed. 9:02:37 AM STEVE ANDISON mentioned that his wife has multiple sclerosis (MS) and asked that he be allowed the time to testify for them both. Characterizing the issue raised by HB 96 as a complicated one, he said he sees two categories of marijuana use: medicinal use and social use. He offered his belief that rather than curb marijuana use, passage of HB 96 will only result in higher retail prices, heavier competition among sellers, and the development of an increasingly potent product. He said that in obtaining marijuana for his wife to use in order to alleviate her chronic pain, he discovered that the product available today is entirely different than that which was available in '60s and '70s, and thus he does have some concern, given the increased potency levels of today's product and the fact that most of those in his generation are only familiar with what marijuana was like three and four decades ago. MR. ANDISON mentioned that although the testimony he's heard from present-day experts on the subject has encouraged him to pay more attention to the issue, he is not convinced that the evidence upon which that testimony is based has reached the level of being a preponderance of the evidence, nor reached "an interval of confidence" showing that marijuana is addictive. Is alcohol addictive? Perhaps to some, but not universally, he remarked, and then posited that much the same could be said of marijuana. Furthermore, even though the prevailing sentiment is that children should be prevented from getting hold of marijuana, it should be remembered that children could also get hold of any other medication that is being kept in their own home. With regard to the fears expressed that people driving under the influence of marijuana present an increased danger, he pointed out that there are already laws that govern and criminalize such behavior. CHAIR McGUIRE asked Mr. Andison whether his wife has a prescription for medical marijuana. MR. ANDISON said no, adding that technically, doctors could write a prescription, but doctors tend to want to know the dosage that they are prescribing, and currently there isn't a controlled product available on the street. Additionally, doctors have not been trained in this modality, they don't know much about the drug, and they certainly don't think of it as a legitimate drug to prescribe - they haven't been trained to do so. Then, in addition to the challenge of finding a doctor that will prescribe marijuana, there is also the challenge of getting that prescription filled. Theoretically, he acknowledged, he could grow the marijuana in his own home, but since he is not a horticulturist and doesn't have the room or finances to do so, he really can't grow it. Instead, he would prefer to be able to take a prescription to a legitimate source. MR. ANDISON opined, therefore, that if the government is going to legitimize the use of medicinal marijuana, it also ought to get involved and help in the regulation, licensing, control, and standardization of medicinal marijuana. Currently, though, there is no real legitimacy in obtaining medical marijuana and so he still winds up skulking around, buying it off the street, and trying to look for someone with integrity who does not deal "death for a dollar." So even though on paper there might appear to be a legitimate process to follow, in reality such a process doesn't actually exist. 9:08:13 AM REPRESENTATIVE GARA asked whether the government provides medicinal marijuana to those who have a valid prescription, or whether there is a regulated way to get medicinal marijuana. MR. ANDISON said that if such a way exists, he has not found it. He acknowledged that there is Marinol - a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - but pointed out that it does not have the same effects as the actual plant. He relayed that he has asked a couple of neurologists and some other experts about this issue and has been told that the most comfort - surcease of pain - will be derived through the use of the actual marijuana plant that has been subjected to heat and the smoke thereof then inhaled. Additionally, Marinol is cost prohibitive. So although medicinal marijuana is not a cure for MS, it does provide some quality of life; therefore, if members know of a legitimate source of medicinal marijuana, he relayed, he would like that information. He predicted that because of socioeconomic issues in rural areas, simply drying up the source of marijuana will not result in a decrease in substance abuse; in rural areas, if marijuana is not available, people simply resort to abusing other substances as a form of escapism. MR. ANDISON, in response to a question, offered his belief that for his wife, an ounce of marijuana for medicinal purposes would be an adequate amount to possess; that marijuana - along with guns, alcohol, and all prescription medication - should be kept out of the hands children; and that there should be culpability for those that don't hold the fragility of youth in high regard. He went on to remark that marijuana is actually a business, and whether it's considered a legitimate business or not, it has to reach certain scales of economy; there is a need to legitimize the business of medical marijuana so that those that need it can afford it. MR. ANDISON, with regard to Ms. Ahrens's comment that HB 96 is a backdoor way of shutting down medicinal marijuana, surmised that if the amount of medicinal marijuana that one may possess is decreased too much, then those that are providing it will not be able to maintain a viable business interest, and this will, in effect, dry up the sources of medicinal marijuana for those that need it. In response to a comment, he reiterated that simply growing marijuana for medicinal purposes is not a practical solution; marijuana is not simple to grow and it is expensive to get into the art and science of growing it. He offered the analogy that people are not having to resort to peeling and boiling their own birch bark in order to make their own aspirin; instead there are legitimate sources of aspirin available, and there should likewise be legitimate sources of medicinal marijuana available. 9:13:54 AM MITCH EARLEYWINE, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Southern California (USC), relayed that he is the author of the book titled, Understanding Marijuana, and teaches substance abuse treatment to USC's clinical psychologists in training. He went on to say: I'd like to emphasize that it took me 15 months to review this literature and write a book that reported on all this work, and so I have to commend [the legislature] for trying to do such a difficult task in such a short period. The recurring themes I seem to see concern some of the potency issues, stories about cannabis being linked to aggression, it's addictive propensity, its impact on driving, and I'd like to address these as quickly as possible. You're going to hear quite a few stories about individual cases where somebody may have used cannabis and been involved in an aggressive act, but I want to emphasize that laboratory research suggests that cannabis does not increase aggression. A study by "Myers Coffin Taylor" (ph) has shown that when you bring people into the laboratory, have them use cannabis, and then actually provoke them and irritate them, they still do not get more aggressive than the folks who have used a placebo, and that individual cases where we see [that] somebody has behaved aggressively after using cannabis are, in a sense, just a spurious result - something that may have happened simply by chance - that cannabis does not play a causal role in aggressive acts. The addictive propensity of cannabis has been overestimated. I have new data suggesting that when you ask clinicians how addictive is cannabis, they rank it in a wave comparable to the addictive propensity of caffeine; [and] that this is not a drug that is used by itself, often, and so a lot of times problems with alcohol or problems with other drugs get attributed to cannabis, ... so that people assume that cannabis is the source of these addictive problems when, in fact, it often stems from other drugs. DR. EARLEYWINE continued: The issues about potency, I understand, are very complex. The bottom line is that yes, cannabis has increased in potency over the years, but it has not increased as much as we've often heard. So I will occasionally read things that suggest that cannabis is 25 times stronger or a 100 times stronger than it was in the 1970s. These estimates are usually based on a misunderstanding of the way cannabis potency was assessed back in the 1970s: we didn't understand how THC worked back then and so, a lot of times, [when] police officers confiscated cannabis, they put it in a hot evidence locker where the THC - the active ingredient - would degrade, and then they would later send it down to the University of Mississippi to have its potency assessed. And, what a surprise, a lot of the THC had degraded and we would get estimates [of] around 1 percent THC. Well, when 1 percent THC is used in the laboratory, people report that it's a placebo - they don't get any effect at all. Surely in [the] 1970s people were getting some effect from this drug or they wouldn't have used it, [so] obviously this is an error. And so when we say it's 25 times stronger than it was in the 1970s, it's because we have an inaccurate estimate of how strong it was in the 1970s. The other thing to consider in the potency issue is that people actually smoke less now than they did in the times when cannabis was generally less strong. So ... when you look at data from the Monitoring the Future study or things along those lines, people tend to report only getting a certain level of subjective effect, and no more, for the last 35 years. So it's not as if people are getting higher simply because they smoke more potent cannabis. Also, in the laboratory, we find that people adjust the way they smoke cannabis when it's more potent, so that they take small inhalations and hold those inhalations for a shorter period in order to get the desired effect without creating any kind of aversive effect, so that stronger cannabis need not be more dangerous cannabis, and, in fact, the cannabis of today is not as strong as we've been led to believe. DR. EARLEYWINE concluded: Finally, [with regard to] the issues about driving, and obviously no one in any state wants to see people drive while they're impaired under any drug, but a lot of this data had been confounded, where people are reported to have cannabis in their system when they were driving and had an accident, but a close look at those data reveal that these people were also consuming alcohol. And obviously alcohol really contributes to driving problems, and those get neglected when we're sometimes interpreting these data. As an expert in this field and someone who's written an entire book on the behavioral effects of cannabis, I really want to encourage you to take a great deal of time to look at this complex literature. I want to emphasize that criminalizing possession isn't going to fix any cannabis-related problems, and I'd also like to make myself available to answer any question at all on any of these behavioral or medical effects of this really complicated substance. Thanks very much. 9:18:54 AM CHAIR McGUIRE, referring to Dr. Earleywine's book, asked what the THC levels were in the tests that he reviewed. DR. EARLEYWINE said most of those laboratory studies used marijuana with either 4 percent or 2 percent THC, since those were the varieties of marijuana that were available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). CHAIR McGUIRE noted that testimony at the bill's last hearing indicated that the average THC level of the marijuana samples from Alaska is higher than that of the samples from any other state, and that the THC level in Alaska's samples has reached as high as 14 percent. DR. EARLEYWINE said although there is cannabis that is that strong, laboratory studies have shown that people don't smoke as much marijuana when it has a higher THC level. Using an analogy involving alcohol, he pointed out that a person who generally drinks beer would not simply consume the same volume of whiskey. CHAIR McGUIRE said she is concerned about children having access to marijuana, and with the fact that unlike alcohol, the potency of which can often be determined simply by its odor, there is no way of knowing the THC level of a particular kind of marijuana without first consuming it. DR. EARLEYWINE concurred, but noted with regard to the latter point that this same point is often used as an argument for creating a legal market for cannabis with the dosage and THC level specified so that people don't have to go to the underground market and purchase marijuana of unknown potency. He relayed that in his and a colleague's ongoing prevention efforts, they are explaining to folks that this argument should be kept in mind, and are emphasizing that the way to smoke cannabis is to do it in very small doses, keeping inhalations brief and small, and allow for time to pass in order to assess the effects before consuming more; he and his colleague have had good luck with that approach among [medicinal] users in Los Angeles. CHAIR McGUIRE, with regard to the issue of driving under the influence of marijuana, relayed that she is bothered by the fact that the courts in Alaska are routinely denying the introduction of evidence that marijuana is present in a driver's bloodstream at the time of a vehicle accident, and are doing so because of the view that the prejudicial value outweighs the probative value. She asked Dr. Earleywine to comment on whether he thinks marijuana has any impact on a person's driving abilities. DR. EARLEYWINE relayed that in the Netherlands, [studies conducted by] Professor Roby (ph) have shown that individuals who smoke cannabis but don't have any alcohol in their systems don't show really dramatic impairments in their driving, such as in turning or in following another car, though the one domain in which they do show problems is in not staying perfectly in the center of the lane. He pointed out, too, that one of the problems with relying on blood and urine samples for the purpose of showing whether a person is under the influence of marijuana is that he/she may no longer be feeling the subjective effects of the marijuana but could still test positive for metabolites in the blood and urine even if the marijuana use occurred several days before. So if laws are based on urine or blood analyses, people would essentially be discriminated against if they used cannabis even up to 14 days prior. CHAIR McGUIRE noted that in one of the chapters of his book, Dr. Earleywine speaks to the issues of perception, complex reaction time, and recall, and said she hopes that those skills/abilities do factor into a person's driving. DR. EARLEYWINE replied: As it turns out, some of those tests are not good analogs to actual driving, which is why I actually would recommend checking the driving section in my book as well, which mentions Dr. Roby's (ph) study, where he actually had people drive in city and highway driving [situations] in the Netherlands and found markedly fewer deficits than you would expect, and certainly markedly fewer than we have with alcohol. 9:25:40 AM REPRESENTATIVE DAHLSTROM said that she has great sympathy for those that have found relief in using marijuana for medicinal purposes, and that she understands the inherent conflict of not being able to go to a pharmacy and get a prescription for medical marijuana filled. Additionally there is the value Alaskan's place on privacy for actions occurring in their own homes. Her concern revolves around the fact that all the information she is currently familiar with says that there is a residual amount of marijuana that stays in a person's system for up to 26 days after use. Given this fact, what a person does in his/her own home over the weekend or while on vacation then becomes her business when she or her child have to rely on someone who's consumed marijuana, such as a school bus driver, or a doctor, or a dentist; the purported residual effects of marijuana consumption dramatically changes the dynamics regarding the issue of privacy. DR. EARLEYWINE replied: That 26-day figure is common for presence of THC metabolites in the urine. So yes, you could still detect if someone has used the drug 26 days previously; however, the subjective effects, the cognitive impairment, some of these small changes in memory and reaction time, only last for a couple of hours after use. And I try to make that clear in the chapters on cognitive effects, but that 26-day figure is a diction of metabolites in the urine, it is not a period of impairment that follows the use of cannabis. REPRESENTATIVE DAHLSTROM noted that for those with a caffeine addiction or a tobacco addiction, the effects of withdrawal from those substances last more than just a few hours. 9:29:07 AM DR. EARLEYWINE remarked that nicotine addiction is markedly more dramatic than that of cannabis, and that in the search for the effects of withdrawal from cannabis, it took 60 years before someone was able to develop a questionnaire that identified the symptoms of marijuana withdrawal. Those symptoms are very mild, he remarked, and can include decreased appetite and mild irritability; nowhere near the types of withdrawal symptoms associated with nicotine, heroin, cocaine, and similar drugs. The parallel being made to caffeine is that marijuana is comparable to caffeine in its ability to produce an addiction, but the withdrawal from caffeine is notorious - yes, that headache is really terrible and can last for up to three days - but people addicted to cannabis who then quit often report experiencing no withdrawal symptoms at all or only minor symptoms such as those mentioned earlier. DR. EARLEYWINE, in response to a question, said that depending on the dosage, if one performs a cognitive test four hours after marijuana consumption, short-term memory, reaction time, and all other cognitive abilities would have returned to normal. 9:31:28 AM DR. EARLEYWINE, in response to other questions, said: As far as emotional problems are concerned, since the 1800s people have been discussing the idea that maybe cannabis use somehow increases the risks for certain emotional disorders. I have data [suggesting] that for the case of depression, this is clearly not the case, that cannabis use does not seem to increase people's risk for depression, and the idea that people smoked cannabis before becoming depressed obviously isn't enough to prove that it's causal. ... So everybody seems to know some cannabis user who is depressed, and they attribute the depression to cannabis when, in fact, it's often socioeconomic or family things that are contributing to the depression, not the cannabis. As you can imagine, I have a hard time publishing those data, but the bottom line is, cannabis doesn't seem to increase depression. There's a new thing coming out suggesting that cannabis may increase psychotic symptoms in folks who are at risk for psychosis [and] so if you have a bunch of schizophrenics in your family, you shouldn't smoke cannabis because you may then develop a schizophrenic break as well. Schizophrenia is a relatively rare disorder, [it] affects fewer than 1 percent of the population, and I'm not sure how big a deal to make out of this, [but] I'd recently had a paper in "Psychiatry Research" suggesting that in fact these people had these symptoms before they used cannabis, not afterwards. Some research in Scandinavia suggests that my research is wrong, we're still going to have to hash that out, [but] the bottom line [is that] I don't think anybody with a psychotic disorder should go near any psychoactive drug, but I don't see cannabis as causal in the creation of schizophrenia. As far as addiction is concerned, as I mentioned, yes, there's about 7 to 9 percent of folks who use cannabis regularly who report some dependant symptoms, but they're often things like tolerance or having to spend a lot of time to go find the drug, which may be more a product of its illicit stature than anything that's inherent in the drug itself, or reporting some conflict with their family about their use; it's not as if it's an addictive thing like heroin or cocaine where people are reporting tremendous craving and turning to prostitution to support habits or anything anywhere near those kinds of lines. And then this notion that pot makes [one] lethargic actually goes back to something that we probably all had in junior high health class, this idea of "amotivational syndrome," where somehow smoking cannabis turns you into this unmotivated slug. And I have data suggesting that people who use cannabis are no less motivated than folks who have never used ever in their lives. Dr. Kassner (ph) has shown that in fact, when you look at people's sick days or the amount of money they earn, or the [amount] ... of time they spend on vacation, cannabis doesn't seem to (indisc.) with that at all, and in one study actually found that folks who made more money were the ones who were the cannabis users, not those who made less money. DR. EARLEYWINE concluded: So it's unclear to me how amotivated or lethargic these [users] are. Again, what happens is, we tend to remember folks who fit our stereotypes, so everybody seems to know one cannabis user who is lethargic and unmotivated, and we remember that one, but we often don't know the other 100 million Americans who've tried cannabis and who are paying their taxes and doing a great job meeting their goals and reaching their dreams. CHAIR McGUIRE relayed that HB 96 would be held over.