Missoula man advocates pot as medicine

September 15, 2004

Jim Gransberry, Billings Gazette

When Paul Befumo's father was undergoing treatment for lung cancer, the chemotherapy made him so nauseous that he was unable to eat.

So, while the cancer was taking his life, he actually starved, Befumo said Wednesday.

That made an activist of the Missoula estate planner. Befumo is now championing Initiative 148, which would legalize the growing and possession of marijuana for medical use in Montana. The issue is one of several on the Nov. 2 ballot. Nine states, mostly in the West, have passed medical marijuana laws.

Befumo said marijuana is an 'effective anti-emetic,' a substance that suppresses nausea and vomiting, and it reduces muscle spasm in multiple sclerosis and relieves the intra-ocular pressure of glaucoma.

If the initiative becomes law, only medical doctors would be allowed to certify that a patient should be registered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which would issue the patient an identification card allowing them or their caregiver to grow and possess up to six marijuana plants or one once of marijuana.

Because federal law prohibits physicians from prescribing marijuana, which is classified as a Level I control drug, that is why the certification process is used, Befumo said.

Opponents to the measure argue that regardless of the state laws allowing it, possession of marijuana is still against federal law. Several federal court decisions have found in favor of the states that have medical marijuana laws, but those cases are on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court with a decision expected in the next term, which begins in October.

'The federal law is still superior,' said Rep. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, an opponent of I-148. 'We settled that at Appomattox in 1865,' referring to the end of the Civil War.

Shockley argues that the six plant limitation is unenforceable because more than one site could be used to grow the plant.

'That lends itself to abuse, and this half-way measure (short of legalizing marijuana for everyone) will make a mess in the courts.'

Shockley said his wife is undergoing treatment for cancer. He said her oncologist believes that those who would use medical marijuana are those who already use it.

Shockley expects the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against the states' legalization.

He conceded that not enough research into the substance's medical efficacy has been done, and more testing is needed.

'If the facts change, it is possible for me to change my mind,' he said.

Befumo said most of the research has been conducted outside the United States. He cited a federal study that found for law enforcement officials 'medical marijuana is a nonissue, it does not pose a law enforcement problem.'

The initiative is very narrowly defined as to who and how the marijuana can be used, said Befumo, who has a law degree but is not a member of the state bar.

Teresa Michalski, of Helena, said that while her son was dying of Hodgkin's lymphoma, the legal pill form of the active ingredient in marijuana was not effective because he could only take it when he was not vomiting. The family lived in fear and anxiety while the son was provided marijuana to smoke to counter the treatment related sickness.

'We are citizens of good standing,' she said. 'We were quite nervous about it.'

To counter the argument that medical marijuana would lead to greater use by young people, Befumo presented the results of a California study that showed use by high school students declined after the passing of Proposition 215 there in 1996.

Befumo said the study did not indicate that the medical marijuana law was the cause of the reduced use of marijuana, but that 'the law did not cause an increase in use as predicted by opponents.'

Befumo said more than 600 Montana nurses and caregivers have given their support to the measure.

A Harvard Health Letter, published Sept. 1, provides a summary of some of the studies and anecdotal research on the efficacy of medical marijuana.

The material outlines the use of marijuana in connection with Alzheimer's, appetite stimulation and suppression, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, nausea and pain.

The studies provide mixed results based on whether the active ingredients in marijuana were smoked or ingested in food, or in pill form.

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