About 10 years ago, a near-fatal car accident left Jon Gettel in unbearable pain, especially during therapy, when the then-25-year-old was forced to learn how to walk again.
The only thing that helped him get through the pain, he says, was marijuana.
Gettel, director of the local chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, aka NORML—a marijuana-legalization group—says the illegal drug saved his life.
"I spent six months in the hospital, and four months in intensive care. I nearly died. I had to go through months of grueling physical therapy," Gettel remembers.
The painkiller that doctors prescribed made him nauseous, Gettel says.
"I had remembered marijuana from my college days. I found I could get through it much easier with the help of marijuana, and I could use less painkillers," Gettel says. "And it improved my mood. Here I am, a 25-year-old man, using a walker. You get depressed. Marijuana elevates your mood and relieves your pain, and does that nontoxically, so I found it incredibly helpful during that time, and I recovered fairly well."
Gettel says he knows many others in Tucson who use marijuana to treat pain and other illnesses—and have to break the law to do so. That could change, however, if Arizona voters approve a medical-marijuana law in November.
The medical-marijuana law would only allow patients with a terminal or serious illness to get the drug with a doctor's approval. The initiative defines the qualifying illnesses as "debilitating medical conditions," such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS. People with prescriptions for medical marijuana would be allowed to buy 2.5 ounces every two weeks.
Gettel continues to use marijuana to treat pain from nerve damage in his feet and fingers that he says was probably caused by an allergy to CT scan dye.
"It doesn't take away the pain, but it does help me to not focus on the pain," he says.
Gettel says he belongs to a medical-marijuana dispensary in California, but he only goes there when visiting, and he never brings that pot back to Tucson. He buys his pot from local dealers, or what he calls the "black market."
"I recommend that people never travel between states with marijuana, even if it's medical marijuana from California. The problem is at the Border Patrol checkpoints: They are zero-tolerance checkpoints," Gettel says. "The police here (in Tucson) are very fair-minded and seem to evaluate the facts of the case before they will arrest you."
If the Arizona law passes, there will be reciprocal benefits for card holders between Arizona and California. And until then, Gettel says, his organization is holding events to campaign for the initiative—and to dispel lingering misconceptions.
Gettel says he hears people comment, "Isn't smoke bad for you?" He agrees that "burning plant material may not be the best choice," but says the marijuana's benefits are immediate for someone who needs instant relief, whereas it takes time to, say, make brownies or brew tea.
Gettel says smoking it also makes it easier for someone to control the dosage.
"While a cancer patient may need four to five puffs or inhalations of marijuana smoke, someone like me, I can get relief from my pain from one or two. You can pick the number you need to get the relief you want. That's why smoke has to be an option. Sure, you can make edibles, but you can't control the dose."
Another concern he has heard—from people he describes as "prohibitionists"—is that marijuana strains are getting stronger, and are therefore more dangerous. But to him and other medical-marijuana advocates, stronger is better. Most of the marijuana bought from dealers is low-quality, he says, which means patients have to smoke more to get anything out of it. Meanwhile, strains sold legally through pot dispensaries are "simply more effective."
California is often used as an example by people opposed to medical marijuana, because of the growing number of marijuana pharmacies or clubs there.
"I often hear the mainstream media say, 'There are more marijuana shops (in California) than Starbucks,'" Gettel says. "But Arizona's law is tightly controlled."
According to the initiative, only one medical marijuana dispensary will be allowed for every 10 pharmacies registered in Arizona. However, the initiative also says the state can go over the limit to make sure there is at least one dispensary in each county.
However, the biggest hurdle Gettel thinks the initiative may face is disillusionment from voters who have passed medical-marijuana laws before, in 1996 and 1998, only to see them dismissed by the state legislators.
However, in 1998 voters also approved Proposition 105, the Voter Protection Act, which prohibits lawmakers from substantially altering voter-approved ballot initiatives.
"So when people say to me, 'Why should I vote for it this year when they ignored it in previous years?' There are things that are different this time," Gettel says.
Organized efforts against the initiative have had little fanfare thus far. Stop the Pot, a campaign committee against the initiative, was started by Max Fose with a $2,500 contribution of his own money. Fose, a former John McCain political aide, owns a website-development and political-consulting firm. He developed the committee's website, www.stopthepot.com.
Fose did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.
Andrew Myers, campaign director for Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, which led the effort to get the initiative placed on the ballot, says he's unsure how many people in Arizona will access pot dispensaries if the initiative passes. However, he compares Arizona's law to that recently passed in Colorado, where 60,000 people are registered to receive medical marijuana.
While Myers says he was pleased the campaign was able to collect more than enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, he admits he's surprised by its across-the-board support.
"Much of that is passive support," Myers says. "Most elected officials have remained silent, and that is telling. No one wants to come out in favor or against, and that's OK."