Montana grapples with medical marijuana issue

February 24, 2003

By COURTNEY LOWERY, Lee Enterprises-Casper Star Tribune,

HELENA -- Larry Rathbun spent 22 months in Montana State Prison for trying to ease the pain and the spasms that are inherent with multiple sclerosis. The nine plants that sent him to prison, he said, were the same kind of plants that helped him in his fight against the wheelchair -- marijuana. With out it, in prison, he lost that battle. "I walked into Deer Lodge and rolled out," he told the House Judiciary Committee Friday in support of House Bill 506 , which would legalize the use of medicinal cannabis, or marijuana. in the state of Montana. Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, wants to change that with a bill he said he's sponsoring because, "pain counts." Under the bill, people certified by the state health department could grow or buy limits of marijuana to help ease their medical pains. On Friday, Erickson got over the first hurdle. His bill passed the committee 13-5. John Masterson, the director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a Missoula doctor who is an authority on medicinal cannabis teamed with Erickson to draft HB506 , which would protect those using or growing marijuana from prosecution for medicinal purposes. The bill would set up an identification system, administered through the health and human services department, that would give each patient an identity card to show they are using for medicinal purposes. Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist from Missoula, helped draft the bill, which he said will help patients with migraines, nausea and other side effects of medical treatments such as chemotherapy and help patients with AIDS, neurological diseases and glaucoma, among others. However, possibly the most prominent ailment to be treated with cannabis is that from which Rathbun suffers and Russo treats -- multiple sclerosis. "We now know that cannabis positively influences the disease itself," the doctor said, adding that it's not just for MS patients, but others suffering from other ongoing, nerve-based pain." Robin Prosser, a Missoula activist, who went on a 60-day hunger strike last spring, also came to speak for the bill. Prosser has an immunosuppressive disorder and other conditions that she said cause chronic pain, heart trouble, muscle spasms, nausea and daily migraines. She said she is currently on 15 medications, but she's allergic to most traditional medicines. "I would like to get past the point of just trying to feel well enough to be here, to do things," she said. "I'm in pain every day and it's not my fault that I'm sick. It's not my fault that medical science cannot come up with a proper drug." There was only one person who spoke in opposition to the bill during Friday's hearing -- a doctor, but also a cancer survivor and a glaucoma sufferer. Dr. Hollis LeFever, a family practitioner from Glasgow, spoke in opposition on behalf of himself and the Montana Medical Association. One of his main objections was that cannabis has not been FDA-approved, he said, and physicians have no way to administer or monitor its use in their patients. It can also have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system, it causes emotional ramifications in some patients, he said. To the same end, federal law would not allow doctors to prescribe the use of marijuana, LeFever said. Russo later said that HB506 does not ask physicians to prescribe, but only that patients be allowed to use cannabis. HB 506 was patterned after Oregon's law. So far, nine states have adopted similar laws, including Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon. A similar bill died in the Wyoming legislature this year. A 1998 study done by Montana State University-Billings and Montanans for Medical Rights found that 70 percent of Montanans showed support, or strongly supported policies that allowed for the safe and legal access to medical cannabis. "If we must have a war on cannabis users, what I would encourage as a policy to at least remove the sick and wounded, the people who are in pain and have these debilitating diseases," Masterson said. "Remove them from the battlefield of this drug war."

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