1. Health

MS patient talks about relief she finds with marijuana (w/video)

SEMINOLE — Peggy Alcorn, a 68-year-old retiree, exercises every day in her swimming pool. • She hangs onto the edge for an hour — bouncing, swaying, kicking and singing to a mix of 1980s hits streaming from her computer. Every 15 minutes or so, she picks up a pipe and takes a few puffs of pot. • Alcorn has multiple sclerosis. She says marijuana has eased her symptoms dramatically. And she hopes that — come Nov. 4 — she will no longer have to worry about breaking the law. • On that day, voters will decide whether to amend Florida's Constitution to allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

Researchers know that the human body is full of "cannabinoid receptors'' that marijuana can activate, affecting many functions.

The same mechanisms that make pot smokers crave snacks might help an AIDS patient regain appetite. Chemicals that make recreational imbibers mellow might also reduce pain and anxiety in a cancer patient. Substances that disrupt balance may also impact movement disorders.

MS is a particularly tempting target. Israeli scientists found that pot compounds reduced brain inflammation and MS-like symptoms in paralyzed mice. In Canada and Europe, doctors treat MS patients with a marijuana extract that is sprayed into the mouth. The British manufacturer has applied to the Food and Drug Administration to market the extract in the United States.

Scientists disagree about the wisdom of treating illness with pot, but few dispute that aggressive research into cannabinoid receptors could lead to new drugs and life-altering breakthroughs down the road.

Some sick Tampa Bay residents aren't waiting — not for research, not for doctors to embrace an illegal herbal remedy, not for the Legislature to pass a medical marijuana system that would have been unthinkable until recently.

They are buying street drugs and taking treatment into their own hands.

Most do so quietly, fearing social stigma or legal repercussions, though local law enforcement officials including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri have said they're disinclined to go after seriously ill people who use marijuana.

But a few, like Peggy Alcorn, are willing to share their stories because of Amendment 2, hoping to drum up empathy.

"I just have to stand up,'' Alcorn says.

MS runs in her family, Alcorn says. When she was younger, she smoked a little pot after work to relax. She stopped 25 years ago, on a doctor's recommendation. Within two weeks, she says, she began falling and losing muscle control. The disease progressed until she became disabled. That's when she moved to Florida.

For years, Alcorn took baclofen, a prescription drug for treating spasticity. Her symptoms kept getting worse, she says. Then about four or five years ago, she added in a substantial dose of pot, smoking the equivalent of one or two joints a day.

"I never get past a mellow high," she says. "I just stop when I feel good,''

Alcorn keeps a diary of symptoms and can tick off those that have disappeared since she began smoking pot in earnest:

Headaches, bone itch, numb hands and feet, tremors, inability to stand or walk more than 10 minutes at a time, nerve pain, problems swallowing, problems speaking and a stiff right arm.

Alcorn does not view marijuana as a miracle cure. Some symptoms still remain, such as balance problems, digestive dysfunction, fatigue, restless legs, poor motor control of her right hand, muscle seizures if she is startled.

The main thing, Alcorn says, is that she moves around more easily, with less pain, and feels better about herself.

Before the pot, she says, she spent a lot of time in bed "and got huge'' — peaking at 310 pounds. Now "I dance in the pool and I dance in the house at night.'' She's down to about 170 pounds.

She volunteers for political campaigns, reads to schoolchildren and helps serve meals to homeless people at a church in Clearwater.

She buys the marijuana from the son of a friend, with the friend's consent.

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.