Medical pot gets hearing before Missouri panel

April 19, 2006

Josh Flory, Columbia Tribune (MO)

JEFFERSON CITY - Advocates of a medical marijuana proposal made their case to a House committee this morning and got a measure of support from at least one key lawmaker.

Rep. Thomas Villa, D-St. Louis, sponsor of the legislation, said though he doesn’t know much about the drug, he is advocating the change "out of a sense of human compassion."

Villa’s bill would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions - including cancer, AIDS, severe pain and other afflictions - to possess as many as seven marijuana plants and as much as 3 ounces of processed marijuana. Patients legally could use marijuana if they had a written statement from a physician who said benefits outweigh health risks for the patient.

Villa said he was approached about the idea by Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who was instrumental in advocating a new marijuana law in Columbia. That law, approved by voters in 2004, allowed seriously ill adults in the city to use the drug with permission from their doctors.

Viets did not attend the hearing, but other Columbia residents did. Columbia physician John Mruzik said numerous medical studies have shown the benefits of marijuana for people with certain conditions. He also said that 70 medical associations have supported the medical use of marijuana.

"I think we should let this go to the people," Mruzik said. "We should let the people decide."

Christy Welliver, a Columbia resident who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, said marijuana has provided some help with spasticity in her legs, though she no longer uses the drug. In an interview, Welliver said she knows "lots of people" helped by using medical marijuana.

"I’ve never understood why it wouldn’t be allowed," she said.

Other witnesses told the panel marijuana was useful in treating pain from collapsed lungs or in alleviating a severe stutter.

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 12 states have legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes, although a federal ban on the drug is still in place. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana users could be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws.

Despite the federal ban, there was some sympathy among members of the Health Care Policy Committee. In an interview, Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper, a Camdenton Republican who heads the committee, said Villa’s bill is too broad and he would prefer the legislature act on the idea rather than voters.

But Cooper, a physician, said he thought testimony from people with medical conditions might have swayed panel members.

"I think medically it’s the right thing to do, to move in a fashion that would legitimize it under certain circumstances," Cooper said.

Michael Boeger, assistant administrator of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in the state Department of Health and Senior Services, testified against the bill.

Boeger said his department is concerned about the health and welfare of Missouri residents but that the state is handcuffed by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and federal laws that ban the use of marijuana.

Boeger also raised technical concerns about the bill, such as the possibility a patient could have multiple caregivers who also enjoy legal protection if they acquire, grow or administer marijuana.

Boeger cited a hypothetical example in which law enforcement officials found someone in possession of a bag of marijuana, but the owner said it belonged to his or her grandmother.

"Does Grandma have six primary caregivers?" he asked.

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