[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY Of all the shitty ways to die, ALS is arguably the shittiest. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and in short it is slow death brought on by the steady and methodical withering of the nerves that control your muscles. First, you can’t button your shirt. Then, you can’t walk and eventually, you can’t breathe. The cruelest irony is that the disease does not affect higher brain function, and so even at the very end, you are a fully present mind trapped in a lifeless body, a ghost in a dead machine. Upon diagnosis, most victims live three to five years. A small percentage live for up to 10 years, but only with the assistance of a ventilator, and few would call that living. There is no cure.
The hardest part of enduring ALS — harder than the burning ass, the wasting away, and the complete helplessness, the terrible return to infancy — is maintaining the will to live. That’s what marijuana did for Diane Riportella— it made her not want to die. “It alleviates the pain and it helps me eat because I have no appetite,” says 54-year-old Riportella, lying in her bed on the second floor of the upscale home she shares with her husband in one of the tonier Zip codes of Egg Harbor, N.J. “But more importantly, it puts a smile on my face and makes me at peace with all this,” she says, gesturing toward the vast array of pill bottles on her night stand and the tank of oxygen with the thick, white accordioned snake that connects it to the respirator mask she has removed to answer a reporter’s questions. “It makes me feel like I could live another day with this disease.”
She asks her husband to sit her upright and frowns as she shows off her limp, withering limbs that hang off her body like wilted branches. It wasn’t always like this. Before she was diagnosed three years ago, Riportella used to be a fitness trainer at the gym where she met her husband, Paul, 13 years her junior. “Yeah, she’s kind of the original cougar,” he says with a smile. She ran marathons to raise money for leukemia and breast cancer research, raising nearly $200,000 over the years by her reckoning. She was always helping out others in need. She even cooked eggs for clean-up workers at Ground Zero after 9/11.
Advancing the cause of medical marijuana will likely be her last fight. And she has fought hard. Riportella has been outspoken about her use of medical marijuana and testified before the New Jersey Legislature, along with other terminally ill advocates for medical marijuana, imploring lawmakers to pass the Compassionate Use Act, which former Gov. John Corzine signed into law Jan. 18 as one of his last official acts as governor.
The law was scheduled to go into effect on the first day of July and if Corzine was still governor, almost everyone who has been involved in the passage of the law agrees, that timeline would have been met. But last fall, voters replaced Corzine with Republican Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor. New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act has been on the slow train to enactment ever since. Last month, the Christie administration asked for — and was granted by the Legislature — a 90-day extension for implementation. But Riportella, like many advocates for medical marijuana, worries that implementation of the law may be delayed indefinitely.
“When you are talking about the growing and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance you want it done correctly,” says Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Christie. “I mean, we could either do it now or do it right. The law as written is not a bad law, but we cannot allow this to become another Colorado or California. This governor, coming from a law-enforcement background, doesn’t want to see that happening. So we are taking a breather.” MORE
RELATED: If medical marijuana is legalized in Arizona, 66,000 people would register to be recipients of prescribed pot — says a legislative budget assessment of what the effect would be on the state. Analysts predict that 39,600 people would register and that another 26,400 designated caregivers would bring the number of medical potheads to 66,000 by the time the program got fully implemented in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Those numbers are based on estimates from a similar program that already exists in Colorado. Voters in Arizona will again have a chance to legalize medical marijuana when it appears on the ballot in November. The use of medical weed has been approved by Arizona voters twice in the last 15 years, but in each case, the wording of the measure prevented it from becoming law. MORE
RELATED: Arizona’s top health official says voters should reject a ballot measure that would allow doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients. Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there probably are some people who would benefit by being able to inhale the now-illegal substance. These include those who have nausea from chemotherapy and individuals who need an appetite stimulant to keep from wasting away. But Humble said health chiefs from other states with similar laws told him the vast majority of the “medical marijuana” cards they issued were for people with “severe and chronic pain.” Humble said that, at best, is subjective. More to the point, he said there is no evidence marijuana actually alleviates pain. Humble is one of several individuals who crafted statements in opposition to Proposition 203 that will appear in a pamphlet to be mailed to the homes of all registered voters. County prosecutors and law enforcement officers also are urging a “no” vote on the measure, as are officers of an addiction-recovery program. MORE
RELATED: This year marks the beginning of the fifth decade of America’s so-called “war on drugs,” a term first used by Richard Nixon in 1969 and codified into national policy with passage of the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. As of 2008, this war is costing us about $40 billion per year at the federal, state, and local levels, or more than $1,000 each second. With all of this time and money invested, there can be no doubt that—any minute now—we will arrest the last remaining drug dealers and convert their final few customers from wanting to get high on controlled substances to wanting to get high on life—or at least on safe, legal drugs like Miller Lite and Marlboros. Nonetheless, the state of California seems to be experiencing a failure of nerve, at least where marijuana is concerned. This November, that state’s voters will have the opportunity to legalize the deadly weed by voting yes on Proposition 19, and current polling finds that passage—i.e., legalization—is not out of reach. MORE
RELATED: Marijuana legalization appears politically viable in California these days, as polling shows the legalization ballot measure, Prop. 19, as being at the very least competitive. Field Research showed Prop. 19 last week at 44% yes vs. 48% no; SurveyUSA’s automated polling showed 50% yes vs. 40% no. Not bad for the measure’s supporters. […]2010 looks like a year where marijuana legalization could actually benefit from the dominant movement in Republican politics right now: the Tea Party, that segment of highly energized voters that contains a powerful libertarian bent. With Ron Paul supporters potentially coming out strong in November, one could expect something like marijuana legalization to pick up a few votes from Republican leaners–more, for instance, than it would have in the Bush years. And Republican support for Prop. 19 could actually be important, in a close vote: Field showed that 31% of California Republicans and 46% of independents support Prop. 19. Some of those, at least, are likely Tea-Party-esque, libertarian-minded conservatives. MORE
RELATED: Legalizing pot may drop the price of a marijuana cigarette to as little as $1.50 in California, but taxing weed may create a whole new black market, according to a new RAND Corp. study. The six-month study, released Wednesday by the renowned Santa Monica-based think tank, provides fuel for both sides of the debate over whether California should legalize marijuana for recreational use. The study said legalizing marijuana in California would drop the price of pot by more than 80 percent and increase consumption. It also said California could generate annual tax revenues either far higher or much lower than a much-publicized $1.4 billion tax estimate by the state Board of Equalization last year. For example, California tax revenues could swing upward if legalization leads to a surge of Amsterdam-style pot tourism or even lures out-of-state drug traffickers wanting to buy cheap California weed to resell elsewhere. “It may depend on whether dealers outside of California can access marijuana in California and bring it back to their states,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher and co-director of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center. Potential tax revenues may be lower if an illicit, secondary market develops from people trafficking cheaper, non-taxed marijuana. “One could hypothesize that people would be willing to pay that tax (on pot) because it would be a lot cheaper to what they’re paying in an illegal market,” said Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, a senior economist for the RAND Corp. “But there is room for a black market to emerge.”MORE
RELATED: To the drug courier, it must have seemed like extraordinarily bad luck: A police cruiser appeared with its lights flashing moments after the 300 grams of heroin allegedly was exchanged on a street in North Philadelphia. The suspect was handcuffed and driven away. But neither luck nor good police work had anything to do with what happened. According to a federal indictment released Tuesday, the arrest was staged by police officers who were working with a drug dealer in a scheme to steal heroin and sell it. And, the indictment said, instead of booking the suspect, Officers Mark Williams and James Venziale drove him to Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue and let him go. A federal drug agent, posing as a dealer, was allowed to drive away with the heroin. MORE