Medical marijuana initiative clears early legal hurdles

April 21, 2004

Allison Farrell, The Missoulan

HELENA - Advocates for the medical use of marijuana will begin collecting signatures across Montana next week on petitions seeking to place the issue on the November ballot.

Both the secretary of state and the attorney general ruled this week that Montana's marijuana initiative, dubbed Initiative 148, meets legal muster.
Advocates must collect a minimum of 20,510 signatures from qualified voters, including signatures from 5 percent of voters in at least 28 of Montana's 56 counties by June 18 before the initiative can be placed on the ballot.

State lawmakers killed a similar measure seeking legalization of medical use of marijuana during the 2003 session.

Eight states - Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Colorado and Maine - have adopted laws allowing chronically ill patients to possess, use and grow marijuana for medical purposes if they have a doctor's recommendation.

Last year, Maryland reduced the penalties for chronically ill people caught with medical marijuana, and Arizona adopted a law permitting the use of medical marijuana with a doctor's prescription.

The Marijuana Policy Project, headquartered in Washington D.C., is pushing the measure in Montan. Paul Befumo, a University of Montana Law School graduate and Missoula estate planner, is heading the campaign here.

'The initiative is about simple compassion and common sense,' Befumo said in a phone interview Wednesday. 'People fighting AIDS or cancer shouldn't suffer when marijuana can provide relief.'

Befumo, who watched his cancer-stricken father die a painful death, said the medical use of marijuana could have helped his father keep food down. Instead, chemotherapy made Befumo's father constantly nauseous, and he died weighing less than 150 pounds.

'I am almost 100 percent sure it would have made his life better, even if he died at the same time,' Befumo said. 'He wouldn't have suffered as much.'

If the Montana marijuana initiative is passed by a simple majority of voters, then patients under medical supervision could use marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of several specific conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS or other conditions or treatments that produce wasting, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe muscle spasms or other conditions as defined by the state.

Additionally, a patient or a patient's caregiver could register to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana by submitting to the state written certification from a physician documenting a debilitating medical condition that would benefit from marijuana use.

Befumo said volunteers and professional signature collectors will begin soliciting signatures for the petition next week. County election officials must receive signed initiative petitions by June 18. Election officials then have until July 16 to verify the authenticity of petition signatures and file them with the secretary of state's office.

The communications director for the national Marijuana Policy Project said people - more so than lawmakers - approve of the medical use of marijuana.

'The public is consistently in support of allowing seriously ill people to use medical marijuana,' Bruce Mirken said from his San Francisco office Wednesday. 'What we have, frankly, is a small group of drug war fanatics in Washington, D.C., who are just absolutely dug into an ideological position. They refuse to look at the science or the simple common sense.'

If passed, Initiative 148 would be effective upon voter approval.

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