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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Fair
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Rejection of Wisconsin medical marijuana bill was a profile in cowardice
Lawmakers to sick people: We don't care
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Jason Glaspie did everything he could. The former Marine, a veteran of the first Iraq war, has endured numerous treatments for brain and spinal cancer that left him disabled and often in terrible pain. One thing that alleviates his suffering is smoking marijuana.

And so when it looked as though Wisconsin might join the 14 other states (and the District of Columbia) that allow the medicinal use of cannabis, Glaspie became an activist for the cause.

The Fitchburg resident attended hearings and events held in support of the proposed bill. He starred in a TV commercial on the issue and let his story be told in the press. And, in the end, like hundreds of other people in Wisconsin, he was bitterly disappointed. The bill died in the just-ended legislative session after state lawmakers failed to bring it forward for a vote.

"The bill's failure to pass forces patients to make the horrible choice between [enduring pain] and being a criminal," says Glaspie. "I should not have to fear prosecution just because I want to move around without my cane. People with chronic health issues have enough on their plates without adding more fear."

But fear is what they are left with. The political structure of the state of Wisconsin has given them the back of their hand. Again.

Just ask former Marine Sgt. Erin Silbaugh (videos here and here), who served three tours in the current Iraq war, returning with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The Lodi resident recalls a conversation with his Assemblyman, Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi). He asked if Ripp cared that Silbaugh had to risk arrest and jail to treat his service-related disability. Ripp, he says, responded by shrugging his shoulders.

"I've been on over 10 different prescriptions provided by the VA to control my PTSD since returning from Iraq, each with its own list of side effects," says Silbaugh. "Why won't the Legislature allow me to use something less harmful and more helpful?"

Why indeed?

The Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, sponsored by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Waunakee), was launched with high expectations at a packed Capitol press conference in November 2009.

A joint public hearing on the bill held on Dec. 15 ran more than eight hours. In all, 105 people spoke in support, including patients, family members, state patient advocates, nursing and hospice groups, health-care workers and the state ACLU. Patients reported wide success with cannabis and almost uniformly expressed how conventional medications didn't work or had intolerable side effects.

Only five people testified against the bill, including representatives of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the Wisconsin Medical Society, Narcotics Officers Association and the Controlled Substances Board.

The bill also enjoyed broad public support and backing from the editorial boards of all major state newspapers. But none of that was enough to keep the bill from dying in committee, extending a streak dating back to the mid-1990s.

What happened?

In short, the death of this bill is one more reminder that state politics is more about politics than people. In today's heated political climate, compromise and bipartisanship are considered flaws.

The Republican leadership decided early on to oppose the bill. At the Dec. 15 hearing, Sens. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) and Alberta Darling (R-River Falls) joined Reps. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) in an all-out assault. Vukmir's attacks were so nasty they provoked loud booing and jeers from offended attendees.

With GOP lawmakers in full "Party of No" form, responsibility for passing the bill fell to Democrats. Support at the hearing came from Erpenbach, Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) and Judy Robson (D-Beloit).

But Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) appeared uninterested. While Wisconsin veterans, seniors, sick, disabled and dying waited months for a committee vote, the buck stopped with Lassa. Rather than being a leader and working to find a compromise, she did nothing, and the bill died in committee.

As this sad drama played out, Jacki Rickert and I heard from hundreds of Wisconsin patients; their stories often brought us to tears. Good people with the bad fortune to have a life of pain, and the even greater misfortune of living in Wisconsin, where a majority of the Legislature doesn't care.

Rickert says she's reminded of what she told candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 after he promised to look into her unfilled federal medical marijuana prescription: "Sir, please don't say it if you don't mean it. I don't think I can stand it to have another bubble broken. I don't think I could take any more."

Clinton broke his promise.

Gary Storck is president of Wisconsin NORML and a member of Is My Medicine Legal Yet? He urges supporters to visit JRMMA.org to learn about efforts to put advisory referendums supporting medical marijuana on local ballots around the state this November, including Dane County.

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