Guest Opinion: DOC policy would violate medical marijuana law

January 14, 2008

Edwin Stickney, OpEd, Billings Gazette (MT)

The Montana Department of Corrections is trying to ban the use of medical marijuana by anyone on parole or probation. This proposal is almost certainly illegal for numerous reasons. Among these is the fact that Montana's medical marijuana law clearly allows anyone suffering from certain medical conditions, with a doctor's recommendation, to use medical marijuana.

The law specifies only one exception, and that is people who are "in" a corrections facility. That means that every other qualified patient, even those on probation or parole (who are not in prison or jail), can use medical marijuana as needed. As a state agency, the department's highest obligation is to honor the state's laws.

But as a lifelong physician and past president of the Montana Medical Association, I see important medical and scientific reasons to be alarmed by what the Department of Corrections is trying to do. In my view, it represents a grave and unacceptable intrusion on the physician-patient relationship. Although it would affect an extremely small number of people, probably fewer than a dozen, it could affect them grievously.

Most offensive is the fact that the proposal would apply a "one-size-fits-all" policy of medical treatment to all patients, putting the department in the position of practicing medicine without a license - while not knowing or caring about the details of any patient's specific condition. No physician would make medical judgments without a thorough understanding of a patient's condition. But the Montana Department of Corrections wants a pat bureaucratic policy to override the specific judgments of the trained and licensed physicians who have a history of knowing, diagnosing and working with the individual patients involved.

Under the Montana law, medical marijuana is absolutely no different medically - or legally - from insulin for a diabetic, hydrodiuril prescribed for a patient with high blood pressure, or Percodan prescribed for a patient suffering from certain kinds of pain. The Department of Corrections doesn't have the authority to deny patients any of these medicines, much less to deny one and not the others. The thinking behind this proposed rule is both incorrect and arbitrary.

Having reviewed the literature reporting on the medicinal benefits of marijuana, I can only assume that the department is largely ignorant of the facts and is prey to generations of misinformation about marijuana. Suffice it to say that a wealth of research published in peer-reviewed, professional journals over the past several decades thoroughly documents marijuana's remarkable values with respect to treating all the conditions approved in Montana's law (as well as others).

In addition, marijuana's side effects have been proven to be mild and benign, particularly when compared to those of the alternative drugs for these conditions. Indeed, for some patients, marijuana is the only medicine that provides true relief. Marijuana is one of the safest medicines in the world.

Under Montana law, the use of marijuana as medicine is a question we assign to physicians and patients - not the government. We made that decision four years ago, with 62 percent of the vote, the largest margin achieved in any of the 12 states that now recognize marijuana as an invaluable medicine for some people. We made the right decision, both medically and morally.

Edwin Stickney lives in Billings.

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