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In 1984, a motorcycle accident in Guam left Michael Krawitz permanently disabled.
"They opened me up like a laboratory frog," the veteran Air Force avionics technician says of the total hip replacement, splenectomy and bowel resection surgery he underwent immediately after the accident. More than 20 years later, Krawitz continues to suffer from bone, nerve and muscle pain.
"Narcotics are very hard on the stomach," he says, adding that side effects from the more than 20 pain treatments he received through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs included migraine headaches, mood swings, constipation and nausea. He says that he found relief in a natural, if not entirely legal, remedy. "Cannabis doesn't just work with pain. It makes you feel generally better."
During the 2010 General Assembly, the 50-year-old Roanoke resident testified before the House Courts of Justice Committee in favor of a bill that would allow medical marijuana to be prescribed in Virginia.
In the past few months, Colorado and Washington became the first states to decriminalize marijuana for non-medical use, allowing possession of an ounce or less by adults 21 and older. While Virginia is still far from legalizing the plant for recreational use, the state does have a history of progressive marijuana reform and scientific breakthroughs in the field of cannabis research.
"There have been some major discoveries at VCU as far as identifying which chemicals the body makes that are marijuana-like and how it affects different physiological systems like pain and anxiety," says Aron H. Lichtman, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Along with a team, Lichtman researches how cannabis affects the brain and how it mimics the naturally occurring pot-like brain chemicals called endocannabinoids.
The experiments, conducted on mice, are funded largely through grants from the National Institutes of Health. "Our work has given a lot of insight into how these naturally occurring marijuana-like chemicals are regulated," Lichtman says. "One of the goals in medical research is to come up with a good medication that gives you all of the benefits of marijuana but none of the negatives."
The benefits of using marijuana include anxiety reduction, pain relief, sleep aid, nausea reduction and anti-inflammatory properties, Lichtman says, while drawbacks include the risk of physical dependence and impairment of short-term memory. He says he would also caution people with anxiety disorders against taking it.
"Marijuana doesn't necessarily cure diseases, but it's palliative," he says.
In 1979, Virginia became one of the first states to legally recognize cannabis as medicine. The state code section that allows for possession and distribution of marijuana for medicinal purposes won endorsement from the Virginia State Crime Commission and the Virginia Sheriffs' Association as part of a comprehensive drug reform law.
"It was, in its time, somewhat controversial," says former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat. As a member of the state Senate in 1979, Boucher served as the chief sponsor of the bill, overseeing a two-year study that included hearings around the state during which doctors and patients vouched for the benefits of marijuana in the treatment of cancer and glaucoma.
The catch? The state code requires a valid prescription, and it is still illegal to prescribe marijuana in Virginia.
"It is essentially a cosmetic thing which was, in 1979, a step forward, but as a practical matter doesn't do much good," says D. Robie Ingram, a staff attorney with the Virginia Division of Legislative Services.
In 2010, the House Courts of Justice Committee dismissed the medical marijuana proposal. "The majority of the Republicans believed that the full medical marijuana bill … was just a back-door way to legalize it," says Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax, the committee chairman. "You can always find a doctor to say, ‘You're stressed out. Here's some marijuana.' The key thing is we already have it for glaucoma and cancer. That was as far as we were willing to go."
But Virginians who support the legalization of cannabis for medicinal use haven't given up hope. They might have an unlikely ally in Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who in February told a class at the University of Virginia that he was open to the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana use.
Until then, Krawitz continues to travel thousands of miles to obtain marijuana through a prescription in Austria, and via a doctor's recommendation in Oregon. "It's not rational for cannabis to be an illegal drug," he says.