A tragic casualty in federal war on medical marijuana

October 29, 2007

Tom Daubert, OpEd, Helena Independent Record (MT)

The nation's Drug Enforcement Administration agents can sleep a little easier tonight. They now have one less medical-marijuana patient to worry about policing.

That's because Montana's leading medical marijuana patient-activist took her own life two weeks ago, a direct result of DEA actions earlier this year. Every patient in the state and all their relatives and friends grieve the loss of Robin Prosser.

It's time for our federal government to end its anti-scientific and brutal war - a war not on drugs, but on sick people like Robin.

For 22 years, Robin suffered the ravages of systemic lupus, a chronic condition that causes the autoimmune system to attack one's own organs and tissues. For Robin, lupus meant a life of unrelenting pain and diverse, horrific side effects. She was allergic to most of the prescription drugs her physicians tried. Only medical marijuana brought her the relief and comfort that made living bearable.

In 2002, Robin made national news by conducting a hunger strike to protest her inability to acquire and use marijuana legally. In 2004, she played an active role in Montana's medical marijuana initiative campaign, appearing in TV and radio ads and writing letters to newspapers about the initiative's importance.

Also in 2004, she attempted suicide. She had run out of medical marijuana and couldn't find any. Plunged again to the depths of her body's medical misery, Robin preferred death to the nightmare of ceaseless pain. Amazingly, Missoula police at the time helped her doctor save her life - and then promptly charged her with the "crime" of possessing a pipe with some marijuana residue staining its insides.

Montana initiative

Several months later, 62 percent of Montanans - the highest percentage ever obtained in a public vote on the subject - made medical marijuana legal for patients like Robin. Today, people from more than half the state's counties are legally registered patients in the program, based on recommendations from 130 physicians.

But the overpowering strength of Montana's vote - more than voted for Bush, for our governor, for our congressman - wasn't enough to resolve Robin Prosser's predicament. While physician recommendations are confidential and fully protected by law and by court decisions, the federal government persists in its persecution of patients. Earlier this year, the DEA intercepted a shipment of legal medicine that was on its way to Robin. Since then, the living hell of her body's condition reawakened, as many registered caregivers in Montana became too afraid of the government to supply her with medicine. Several began growing the strain of medical marijuana that worked best for her, but it takes months of careful work to produce it - time that Robin, in the end, couldn't endure.

This is a states' rights issue, and Montana voters deserve to have their policy honored. This is also a science issue, and Americans deserve a federal government that is intellectually honest enough to acknowledge the existence of hundreds of scientific research reports published in peer-reviewed professional journals over the last several decades, documenting the remarkable medicinal effects of marijuana.

The Missoula study

And we in Montana have a special ax to grind, even without Robin Prosser's passing. That's because the only serious study of long-term medicinal use of marijuana is commonly called "The Missoula Study," because its lead author happened to live in Missoula at the time it was conducted.

Dr. Ethan Russo is widely regarded as one of the world's leading experts on cannabis and its use as medicine. His "Missoula Study," published in 2002, reported on the experience of patients who had received and used eight ounces of medical marijuana every month since the 1980s. The patients got (and still get) their monthly marijuana from -are you ready for this? - the federal government, the same government that seized Robin Prosser's medicine. Dr. Russo's research documented that medical marijuana relieved all the patients' suffering better than "traditional" alternatives, and allowed sharp reductions in their need for more expensive, riskier drugs at the same time.

It's progress, at least, that all the Democratic presidential candidates and two of the Republicans have gone on record promising to end federal attacks on medical marijuana patients. And it's important progress that Montana's Rep. Denny Rehberg has supported this same position ever since his constituents adopted a compassionate state policy.

But we've had enough tragedies. Let Robin Prosser be the last casualty of the federal war on medical marijuana.

Tom Daubert of Helena worked on Montana's medical marijuana initiative campaign and helped create Patients & Families United (www.mtmjpatients.org).

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