Montana medical marijuana initiative draws debate from both sides

August 01, 2004

Allison Farrell, The Missoulian

HELENA - When Larry Rathbun was arrested by Dawson County sheriff's deputies on marijuana charges in December 1999, his multiple sclerosis was under control, he said, and he was still able to walk and ride his horses.

But when this former eastern Montana resident was released from Montana State Prison in 2002, he rolled out the front gate in a wheelchair.

Rathbun, 54, has suffered from degenerative multiple sclerosis since 1971. He said he has long smoked marijuana to ease 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 he blames the stress of prison, and the time he spent without his drug of choice, for his accelerated degeneration.

Rathbun, a Vietnam veteran who moved to a secluded ranch 15 miles west of Glendive in 1981, said he grew his plants in peace - and managed his disease - until someone turned him in to authorities.

'Everyone who knew me knew I was using marijuana for medical purposes,' Rathbun said. 'I have never sold it.'

Even so, he said his refusal to admit guilt in a plea bargain found him convicted of felony drug charges.

Upon his release after 19 months in state prison, Rathbun moved to Washington state, in part, because Montana does not legally recognize the medical use of marijuana.

Come November, Montana voters will have a chance to change the state's marijuana laws. Activists from the Marijuana Policy Project of Montana raised more than enough signatures - some 25,000 - to get their medical marijuana initiative placed on the general election ballot.

Voters will be asked to cast their ballot for or against 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,' Rathbun said. In Washington, all he needs to legally grow and use marijuana is a signed letter of recommendation from his physician.

Proponents of medical marijuana say smoking the plant relieves nausea, increases appetite, reduces muscle spasms, relieves chronic pain and reduces pressure in the eyes. It can be used to treat the symptoms of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma, among other diseases, they say.

But opponents of the law say medical marijuana laws are the first step on the road to drug deregulation.

'What they're really trying to do is do away with drug laws,' sad 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 he said he has seen firsthand the effect that drugs have on lives, families and communities.

'With all the data available to me, with all the lives that have been ruined by drugs, I certainly have a perspective on why medical marijuana is not the ideal medical alternative for individuals in Montana,' Curtis said.

For starters, Curtis pointed to new data recently released by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that shows children and teens are three times likelier to be in treatment for marijuana use than for alcohol use.

And they are six times likelier to be in treatment for marijuana use than for all other illegal drugs combined, he cited.

He also said marijuana is a so-called 'gateway drug,' which means people who use marijuana have less inhibitions about using other, more serious, drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

While supporters of medical marijuana say they are not advocating for 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. Curtis and Shockley are formally opposing the ballot initiative.

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. His agency serves as 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.

Mirken thinks some federal and local authorities have political objections to marijuana.

'What's at stake for them is a big part of their budget,' he said. 'Marijuana is far and away the most commonly used illicit drug in the country. If we start rethinking marijuana, some might think they'll be out of a job.'

And he thinks people who sincerely believe marijuana is just plain bad are just 'badly misinformed.'

'Marijuana policy is built on the fiction that this is a drug that is terribly harmful and has no benefits,' Mirken added.

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.

Understanding Montana's medical marijuana initiative

What would Montana's proposed medical marijuana initiative do?

Allow terminally and seriously ill patients who find relief from marijuana to use it with their doctors' approval.

Protect these patients from arrest and prosecution.

Permit qualifying patients or their caregivers to grow marijuana for their medical use, with limits on the amount they could possess.

Create registry identification cards so authorities could easily tell who is a registered patient, and establish penalties for false statements and fraudulent ID cards.

Allow patients and their caregivers who are arrested to discuss their medical use in court.

Keep common-sense restrictions on the medical use of marijuana, including prohibitions on public use of marijuana and driving under the influence of marijuana.

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