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Quadriplegic faces jail time for using medicinal marijuana

CLEARWATER — Arthritis attacks his neck and shoulders. Painful spasms ripple across his crippled body. Imaginary needles stab his useless feet.

John Haring has lived with the chronic pain since becoming a quadriplegic two decades ago. Then he found a way, he said, to ease his aching body, to lift his depression.

Now he's going to jail for it.

Haring, 45, was caught growing his own marijuana, a remedy he says he turned to after prescription painkillers wrecked his body and mind. Legal narcotics leave him drugged, depressed and in an angry stupor, he said.

"Sometimes I just want to end it all," Haring said. "But when I smoke it's like the world's lifted off my shoulders, it's like I can deal with what I have to deal with in this wheelchair."

But Florida law doesn't allow the medicinal use of marijuana and likely won't anytime soon. Haring's only legal means of relief is to start using narcotics again.

If he doesn't and the state catches him with marijuana again, he could go to prison.

• • •

Haring's plight comes as more and more Americans favor legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana.

According to a recent Associated Press-CNBC poll, 60 percent of Americans support the use of medicinal marijuana.

The Marijuana Policy Project says 14 states allow medicinal marijuana and a dozen more are considering such laws.

But not Florida. A proposed amendment to the state constitution to legalize medicinal marijuana failed to get on the November ballot. There are no bills in the legislature for it, either.

Bruce D. Grant, director of the state Office of Drug Control, said he personally opposes legalizing medicinal marijuana.

"It's a wolf in sheep's clothing," he said. "It is a subterfuge in order to get marijuana legalized."

Indeed, 55 percent of Americans still oppose making marijuana legal for everyone, according to the AP-CNBC poll.

The Marijuana Policy Project does, in fact, support widespread legalization. But spokesman Mike Meno pointed to mounting scientific evidence that marijuana can relieve the pain and symptoms of debilitating illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis without the side effects of prescription narcotics.

"It's tragic that Florida is one of 36 states where patients are still treated as criminals," Meno said, "if marijuana is the medicine that works best for them."

• • •

Haring was a 24-year-old truck driver in Ohio when a kid pulled out in front of his 18-wheeler on March 21, 1989. He rolled his rig trying to avoid him.

The cab's roof collapsed onto Haring's forehead. He dislocated his C6 vertebrae and fractured C7. Soon he regained the use of his arms and hands — but not his fingers, and not his legs.

"It's like taking a 24-year-old man and sticking him back in a baby's body," he said.

The accident robbed him of mobility, not the ability to feel pain. He was prescribed narcotic painkillers and muscle-relaxers, later antidepressants.

"We didn't want to be around him when he was on the narcotics," said his mother, Melissa Morrow, 66. "No one wanted to be around him."

A therapist showed Haring another — albeit illegal — way to cope. "He told me if I ever wanted to survive I had to get off these pills," he said. "We left the hospital and burnt that night. Pretty much I've been smoking ever since."

• • •

Haring started growing his own marijuana in his Clearwater home.

Smoking pot allowed him to live his life, he said. He could drive his pickup and earn extra money hauling boats and classic cars. He had relationships again. Five years ago, he had children of his own, twins Logan and Sonona.

"I can stand up and fight or give up," Haring said. "Marijuana wants me to fight. The pills want me to give up."

But it looks like he may have to give up. Haring has been arrested twice in as many years for cultivating marijuana. He was caught with 41 plants in 2007 and three times that many in 2009.

In 2007, Haring told the police he sold marijuana for extra money, but he was never charged with that offense. The first case was dropped after he completed a pretrial intervention program.

A year after the arrest, Haring said he started growing pot again. This latest arrest will send him to jail for 90 days, then he has to serve three years of drug offender probation.

That means drug-testing. A failed test will land him in front of a judge, facing up to five years in prison. It's part of what Haring's attorney called a lenient plea bargain approved last week.

Does it make sense to lock up a man in a wheelchair? Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his office mitigated Haring's sentence because his medical condition is legitimate, and there were no allegations of drug dealing in this latest arrest. But Haring is going to jail, the state attorney said, because he broke the law again.

"There has to be some consequence in my view," McCabe said.

• • •

Marijuana came with a cost for Haring. The mother of his children moved them away in 2007. She feared losing their children if Haring got caught, which he did.

But prescription drug abuse also poses a growing problem. Prescription drugs kill six Floridians a day, the state said, and the number of deaths is increasing at five times the rate of illegal drugs.

Haring's attorney, John Trevena, questions the wisdom of laws that force his client to take more powerful and dangerous drugs.

"They take away from him the one thing that has worked and force him to take something more toxic," Trevena said. "There's no logic to it."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Quadriplegic faces jail time for using medicinal marijuana 04/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 10:33pm]
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