Medical marijuana debate rages

October 17, 2004

Eric Newhouse, Great Falls Tribune


For the last year until he died of Hodgkin's lymphoma, Travis Michalski was in tremendous pain — and his parents were ready to help in any way.

'With his first chemo treatment, he became violently ill,' said his mother, Teresa Michalski of Helena.

'He had been prescribed anti-nausea pills,' she said, 'but he couldn't keep them down.'

Marijuana helped, so his parents reluctantly broke the law to buy it for him.

'It was scary because that's not part of our culture,' Michalski said.

'His dad and I went to certain bars that we thought marijuana users might frequent.

'They were real leery of us, but we kind of hung out a couple of times and told our story,' she said. 'Finally, we built a trust relationship.'

That threat would be eliminated if voters approve Initiative 148, which would legalize the use of marijuana prescribed by a doctor.

'To date, no one has said that marijuana is a medicine,' said Scott Burns, the deputy White House drug czar. 'It's not.

'We have much better ways of treating an illness than smoking a weed,' said Burns last week during a tour of Montana.

But Paul Befumo of Missoula, a spokesman for I-148, said the proposed law is designed to help people like the Michalskis.

'This would allow people to use medical marijuana under a doctor's supervision without facing criminal prosecution and being put in jail,' Befumo said.

For some patients, marijuana eases nausea that accompanies chemotherapy, he said, and no other drug works as well.

'One of the basic principles behind prescriptive medicine is that there's a lot of redundancy,' Befumo said.

'Multiple drugs work in various ways because not everyone responds to the same drugs in the same way,' he explained.

But marijuana would be limited to people who are ill, he said.

'This is a very narrowly drafted statute, only applying to people with certain diseases that are listed and only under the supervision of a doctor,' Befumo said.

The initiative limits the production, possession and use of marijuana to patients under a doctor's supervision. The drug would be limited to those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, or other conditions that produce wasting, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures or severe muscle spasms.

The initiative would present no immediate cost to taxpayers, proponents said.

A harmful helper

Roger Curtiss, director of Alcohol and Drug Services in Anaconda, wants to know if a patient is incapacitated who would grow and harvest the marijuana — and who would check to see how much was grown and whether it all went to the patient.

The initiative also would undermine the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration, which rigorously tests new drugs to protect the American public, argued opponents.

And smoking marijuana is harmful, they said, because it has higher concentrations of tar, carbon monoxide and carcinogens than are found in cigarettes.

'The FDA is never going to approve a smoke product for medical use,' said Curtiss.

Opponents noted that federal laws still make it illegal to grow, sell, purchase or use marijuana — even under a doctor's supervision.

'The ads show someone in a wheelchair suffering from a dehabilitating illness,' Burns said. 'But that's not what it's about.

'It's all about causing more young people to use the drug,' he said.

A gateway drug

America is facing a crisis with drug use, he said, and one of the gateway drugs is marijuana.

Now the target audience is 10-to 13-years-olds, Burns said.

'This issue is about kids,' said Burns, who held news conferences opposing drug use in Missoula and Helena last week.

'I've met with sheriffs and chiefs of police in Montana, and the message I've been hearing so far is that they're having a terrible problem with drug abuse in the schools, predominately marijuana.

'This initiative sends the message that marijuana is good for you,' said Burns, 'but that's not right.'

Burns, deputy director for state and local affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said nine states have passed similar legislation.

'We've had no chance yet to do in-depth studies,' Burns said.

'But evidence from the field is that when you decriminalize marijuana and make it more available, use by teenagers goes up,' he added.

Blowing smoke

That's a scare tactic, argued Befumo.

Two years ago, the investigative arm of Congress issued a report that found these laws are working well and have not caused problems for law enforcement officials, he said.

But Curtiss, immediate past president of NAADAC, the organization for addiction professionals, said Oregon experienced problems.

'There were 8,000 people licensed there, but one single doctor had half the patients,' Curtiss said. 'He no longer has his license.

'Addiction professionals in Oregon tell me that addicts are very good at conning doctors to get medications. They found that only 3 percent of the people registered had legitimate, chronic illnesses. The rest was made-up stuff.'

Befumo cited a study by the attorney general of California showing teen use of marijuana rising until 1996, when Proposition 215, the state's medical marijuana law, was passed. Then, the study showed it declining steadily each year since.

'The fear tactic of protecting the children is false,' Befumo said.

'I find it difficult to believe there's any justification for putting innocent people in jail for marijuana use for medical reasons,' he said.

Burns disagreed: 'Legalizing marijuana compares to selling snake oil off the back of a wagon 100 years ago.'

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