Montana medical marijuana initiative sparks debate

August 01, 2004

Associated Press, Billings Gazette

HELENA (AP) -- Proponents of medical marijuana use hope Montana will join nine other states in making the drug legal to treat certain illnesses.

But opponents say medical marijuana laws are just the first step in an effort to have the drug deregulated completely.

Activists from the Marijuana Policy Project of Montana gathered more than enough signatures to get their medical marijuana initiative placed on the general election ballot in November.

Voters will decide whether to approve Initiative 148, a proposed new law that would protect medical marijuana patients, their doctors and their caregivers from arrest and prosecution.

'They ought to have enough sense and let the doctors have control of our health,' said Larry Rathbun, an initiative supporter.

Rathbun was arrested in 1999 in Dawson County and convicted of felony drug charges for growing marijuana, which he said he smoked to control the multiple sclerosis he had had since 1971.

Rathbun said the drug eased his muscle spasms, pain, depression and loss of appetite. He credits the illegal plant with keeping him out of a wheelchair for so long and blames the stress of 19 months in prison, and the time he spent without his drug of choice, for his accelerated degeneration since his release.

He has since moved to Washington state, where voters already approved a medical marijuana initiative.

Proponents of medical marijuana say smoking the plant relieves many of the symptoms of chronic illnesses, including AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.

But opponents say medical marijuana laws are an effort to eventually entirely deregulate the drug.

'What they're really trying to do is do away with drug laws,' said Roger Curtis, director of alcohol and drug services for Anaconda and Deer Lodge County. 'And they're trying to get their foot in the door.'

Curtis has spent more than 20 years working as an addiction counselor in Montana and said he has seen the affects that drugs have on lives, families and communities.

While supporters of medical marijuana say they are not advocating complete deregulation of the drug, opponents say the legalization of medical marijuana would precipitate a law enforcement nightmare.

'There's no way to regulate dosage and it would be really difficult to regulate the lawful growing of it,' said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Shockley, R-Victor.

And then there's the question of marijuana's medicinal benefits, Curtis said.

'There's no way, at any given time, the Federal Drug Administration is ever going to say that smoking marijuana is a proven medical treatment,' Curtis said. 'It has more carcinogens in it than regular tobacco.'

But voters have never voted down an initiative in favor of the medical use of marijuana at the ballot box, according to Bruce Mirken, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. The group is the parent organization to the Marijuana Policy Project of Montana and has given the Montana effort $170,000 as of July 5.

'What there is, in fact, is a small faction of drug war fanatics who have dug in their heels against science and common sense,' Mirken said.

Despite federal drug laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, proponents of the measure say the tide is finally turning in their favor. Since 1996, nine states have enacted laws that effectively allow patients to use medical marijuana, despite federal law. A 10th state, Maryland, has a law that will protect patients from jail but not arrest.

Medical marijuana was approved by voters in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. In Hawaii, a law was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2000. In Vermont, a law was passed by the Legislature and allowed to become law without the governor's signature in May 2004, the Marijuana Policy Project reports.

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