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US Rep. Ryan Foe Kaleka Used Medical Marijuana

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 8:09am
DINESH RAMDE, Associated Press

RACINE, Wis. (AP) — After a white supremacist gunned down his father at a Sikh temple in 2012, U.S. congressional candidate Amar Kaleka had trouble coping with his grief. He suffered panic attacks, he lost his appetite, he couldn't sleep and he was nagged by suicidal thoughts.

His mother was also devastated. Her therapist prescribed anti-anxiety medications that sometimes left her in a fog. Because Kaleka was living in southern California he could legally use medicinal marijuana, and it worked for him. His mother could not use marijuana, which is against the law in Wisconsin.

The inconsistency is crazy, said Kaleka, a Democrat who's mounting a longshot bid to unseat former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in the 2014 congressional election. Kaleka said if he is elected, he would work to make medicinal marijuana available nationwide. After that, he'd want to extend decriminalization to recreational marijuana as well.

"Personally I know that medicinal marijuana works," Kaleka, 35, said in an interview with The Associated Press at his Racine headquarters. "I think it's disappointing that people who might really need it, someone who's gone through a tragedy like that, doesn't have access to that option."

Kaleka and his family sought grief therapy after the shooting, in which a gunman walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in suburban Milwaukee and opened fire. Kaleka's father was among six people killed. Five others, including a police officer, were wounded. The gunman died in a shootout with police, and the FBI was unable to determine a motive.

The mourning took a toll on Kaleka, a Milwaukee native. He was fine while surrounded by his Wisconsin support group. But when he returned to Tarzana, Calif., to prepare to move back home, his anxiety grew.

His California therapist recommended he try medical marijuana, saying it's natural and less addictive than pharmaceutical drugs. Kaleka figured he'd heard enough good things about its medical benefits that he'd give it a shot. It would be the first time he ingested marijuana since he ate a pot-laced pizza during what he said was a spiritual ritual of self-discovery in his junior year of college. Kaleka graduated in 2001 from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

At first he tried smoking medical marijuana, but it left his throat raw and scratchy. He tried other marijuana-laced products — brownies, cookies, chips and popcorn — before settling on lollipops, whose dosages were easier to manage. He'd have one or two a week, and found they helped him regain his appetite and eliminated suicidal thoughts.

While Kaleka supports legalizing medical marijuana, he said that he is more concerned with strengthening gun laws, working for fair pay and fair education and focusing congressional efforts on actual problems instead of political posturing.

Democrats in Wisconsin have tried to legalize medical marijuana but Republicans have stymied the efforts.

A Marquette University poll in October found 50 percent of Wisconsin residents supported legalizing marijuana, while 45 percent opposed it. The poll did not distinguish between medical and recreational use.

A message left with the Ryan campaign for reaction to Kaleka's comments was not immediately returned Friday.

Rob Zerban, the other Democrat vying for the right to challenge Ryan, said in an email he supports decriminalizing marijuana so people aren't imprisoned for carrying small amounts.

Kaleka wouldn't be the only congressional candidate to acknowledge marijuana use. Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach, 52, says he used the drug recreationally in high school and college, and he's made legalizing it a focus of his campaign. Leach said he believes medical marijuana is "not even that controversial of an issue among voters anymore."

Kaleka said it was tough to watch his mother zone out on pharmaceutical drugs while he had access to better medications. She declined when he offered her some of his medicinal marijuana products, but he said he wouldn't have minded sharing, even if it was illegal in Wisconsin.

"When your wisest decision is against the law, either your decision is wrong or the law is wrong," he said emphatically. "In this case, it's the law that's wrong."

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org.

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