U.S. fights hard against medicinal pot; Most Montanans would back initiative

October 11, 2004

Allison Farrel, Billings Gazette

HELENA - In the last few months of his short life, Travis Michalski of Helena had lost one-third of his body weight.

His skinny frame was wracked with so much pain that he couldn't bear his families' hugs. And the powerful medications his oncologist gave him to combat the torment of terminal cancer wouldn't stay down.

Chemotherapy, which Michalski started immediately after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, caused him nausea from the day he began treatment.

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He couldn't even stomach his anti-nausea medication.

So Michalski did some Internet research, and soon took to smoking marijuana to calm his digestive tract. The drug also took the edge off the anxiety he dealt with every day, knowing he would die and leave his 8-year-old son behind.

Michalski told his parents about his choice, and they didn't object.

'It wasn't a hard decision,' said his mother, Teresa Michalski of Helena. 'But it was a scary decision.'

Teresa Michalski was worried the police would find out, and would force her 29-year-old son to spend the last few months of his life in jail. She was afraid the family would lose their house. She feared their daughter would lose her federal student loans for college.

But she couldn't say no when she saw how the illicit drug eased his suffering. She said she can't believe that some Montanans are opposing a ballot initiative seeking to legalize the medical use of marijuana here.

Ballot Initiative 148, which Montanans will be able to vote on in the general election Nov. 2, would protect patients, their doctors and their caregivers from arrest and prosecution for the medical use of marijuana.

'What in their head gives them the right to tell a patient they can't use it?'

Teresa Michalski asked. 'If the doctors weren't so afraid of the repercussions, they would be endorsing this.'

Passage of the measure would make Montana the 10th state to allow medicinal use of marijuana. 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 was allowed to become law without the governor's signature in May.

The measure is being backed financially by the national Marijuana Policy Project of Washington, D.C. Paul Befumo of Missoula, treasurer of the Marijuana Policy Project of Montana, is traveling the state this fall to stump for the initiative.

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.

While a recent Gazette State Poll shows that 58 percent of likely Montana voters approve of the measure, marijuana supporters face tough opposition.

Among their staunchest opponents are the White House and federal law.

Opposition

Just last week, the White House sent Scott Burns of the National Drug Control Policy Office on a multiple-city tour of Montana, where he spent the majority of his time speaking against the ballot measure. He said legalization of medical marijuana sends the wrong message to children.

He also said federal law, which prohibits the use and possession of marijuana, trumps any of the permissive laws that states pass.

'There is no safe harbor,' Burns cautioned. 'If this initiative passes, the (Drug Enforcement Agency) is not going away. It is still illegal in the U.S. to possess marijuana.'

Opponents of the measure also say the medical argument for marijuana is bogus.

Burns said the marijuana lobbyists in Washington, D.C., are 'conning' people into believing there are benefits to the drug. He said no credible medical authority, such as the American Medical Association, has ever endorsed the drug.

'There are better and more effective treatments than marijuana,' Burns said, brushing aside the argument that pot makes terminal patients 'feel good.'

Burns said heroin also makes people 'feel good' but doctors don't prescribe it.

Roger Curtiss, director of alcohol and drug services for Anaconda and Deer Lodge County, said he has seen firsthand the negative effects of pot on the state's youth.

'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,' Curtiss said.

Curtiss pointed to new data recently released by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that show children and teens are three times more likely to be in treatment for marijuana use than for alcohol use.

And they are six times more likely to be in treatment for marijuana than for all other illegal drugs combined, he said. Burns said the number of children using marijuana probably would increase in the wake of the legalization of medical marijuana.

Finally, opponents argue that 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 Rep. Jim Shockley, R-Victor. Curtiss and Shockley are formally opposing the ballot initiative.

'What they're really trying to do is do away with drug laws,' Curtiss said. 'And they're trying to get their foot in the door.'

Out of states' hands?

The question of whether the federal government may prosecute medical marijuana patients in states where the practice is permitted will soon be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the right of two California women to possess and grow marijuana for their medicinal needs. The U.S. Justice Department appealed the case, which the high court will hear in coming months.

Upholding the 9th Circuit ruling 'would mean the federal government can't prosecute people in medical marijuana states for possession within the bounds of the state's statutes,' said Befumo, of the state Marijuana Policy Project.

Befumo said the U.S. Supreme Court would not be tossing federal drug law out the window, but would be defining federal jurisdiction.

Such a ruling 'would be excellent,' Befumo said.



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