Medical marijuana debate a smoking issue

October 26, 2004

Ginny Merriam , The Missoulian

How you feel about medical marijuana and the initiative to legalize it on the Montana ballot depends on where you sit.

Scott Brodie looks at it from his job as sergeant of the Missoula Police Department's drug unit and his eight years of drug-related law enforcement. Legalizing the medical use of marijuana will contribute to crime, set a bad example for youths, open the door to use of other drugs, create more drug addiction, cost the taxpayers money for more law enforcement - and it's just plain not necessary, he said.

 
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'I'm just appalled that this thing could be this close to passing,' he said in a recent interview. 'I'm passionate about this. I'm just alarmed about what the poll numbers are showing.'

Paul Befumo looks at it as the spokesman of the Medical Marijuana Policy Project of Montana, based in Missoula. It's just ridiculous to put sick people in prison - or have them live in fear of that - for using a medicine that works, with the help of their doctors, he recently told the Missoulian Editorial Board.

'They don't belong in Deer Lodge,' he said. 'There's something wrong with us using police power on this.'

'It's a reasonable initiative,' he said. 'It's got a good purpose. It gives doctors back a tool they had for the first 150 years of our country.'

Brodie, in his role as detective sergeant with the multi-agency High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, recently wrote a six-page letter against Initiative 148 for Montana newspaper editorial pages on behalf of the Missoula Police Protective Association. The police union represents about 80 law enforcement officers in the rank of lieutenant and below.

If voters approve it, the initiative would be a law-enforcement nightmare, he said.

The initiative provides for approved medical marijuana users to carry a card authorizing that use. Forged cards will proliferate like forged driver's licenses, he said. Police time will be taken checking the veracity of cards, increasing the response time and decreasing the time left to spend on such things as homes that have been burglarized.

The homes of medical marijuana users themselves will be the target of drug addicts who know they will find marijuana in their homes, Brodie said.

That has not been true in the nine states that have legalized medical marijuana, said Befumo and Tom Daubert of Helena, a public relations specialist who is also working to promote the initiative. A study conducted by the federal General Accounting Office found that in the four states with the oldest medical marijuana laws - Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii and California - 'medical marijuana laws have had little impact on their law enforcement activities for a variety of reasons.'

Most of the 37 law enforcement agencies interviewed said they routinely had very few or no encounters with registry cards. The researchers commented on the small number of patients who had registered and doctors who had prescribed medical marijuana.

Oregon has had 8,000 medical marijuana users registered at one time, Befumo said. Considering the population difference, Montana would see many fewer.

'You might be looking at as many as a thousand people,' he said. 'It might be a lot less.'

In Montana, about 4,000 to 5,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed each year. Not all but some of those might get relief from nausea, vomiting, pain and lack of appetite, research says. Recent studies found that the cannabinoids in marijuana can inhibit the growth of cancer tumors.

Research has established that marijuana has medical value. Its value is even corroborated in a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Its use is endorsed editorially by the New England Journal of Medicine and the British medical journal The Lancet Neruology, which called cannabis 'the aspirin of the 21st century.'

'Medical marijuana is one of the things that's been shown to work,' Befumo said.

Yet Brodie, speaking for the police union, knows marijuana as a 'gateway drug' that leads to other illegal drugs.

'Somebody doesn't just get up some day and say, 'I'm going to start using heroin,' ' he said. 'It starts with tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.'

We spend billions on the legal drugs tobacco and alcohol, he said.

'They're legal drugs,' he said, 'but the vast majority of our social and law enforcement problems are tied to them.'

The secondhand smoke of medical marijuana should be a concern, too, Brodie said. And he strongly disagrees with parents being allowed to administer it to their minor children.

'As ludicrous as it sounds,' he writes in his letter to newspapers, 'Initiative 148 does not limit a parent from using a doctor's recommendation to hook up a marijuana bong to the oxygen tent of a sick infant!'

Just as ludicrous to supporters of the initiative is the notion that marijuana was attacked for political reasons in the United States in the 1930s after it was used medicinally for thousands of years.

Its medical use is documented as early as 600 B.C. in Persia, among the writings of the ancient Greeks, in the sixth and seventh centuries in India and after its introduction in the West in 1839.

'The medicine you use should be between you, your doctor and God,' said Daubert. 'Not the federal government.'

Supporters of medical marijuana point to the case of eastern Montana farmer Larry Rathbun, who grew and used marijuana to quell his arthritis and keep his farm running, Befumo said. He was sentenced to 19 months in the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge and came out in a wheelchair, he said.

Missoula's recent medical marijuana case has also been cited in the initiative debate. Robin Prosser, a Missoula woman who suffers from an immunosuppressive disorder that's related to lupus, has found that smoking marijuana is the only thing that gives her relief from pain.

Two years ago, Prosser fasted for more than a month in a public plea for the legalized use of medical marijuana. Last May, overcome by the strain and expense of obtaining the drug illegally on her small disability check and afraid of the pain when she couldn't get it, Prosser tried to kill herself with an overdose of prescription drugs.

When one of her doctors contacted police for help, and they went to her apartment, they found marijuana residue and paraphernalia. She was charged with possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Prosser could have gone to jail for a year. But Missoula defense attorney John E. Smith offered to represent Prosser pro bono, and prosecutors negotiated a deferred prosecution in late August. She will not be prosecuted if she is 'law abiding' for nine months.

Cases like this keep proponents of the initiative going, said Befumo, who watched his own father starve when he had cancer and no appetite.

Brodie - and Gov. Judy Martz, too, who also opposes the initiative - say that people like Prosser should take the drug Marinol, which is a synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana. But many patients say it does not work for them, possibly because it is only one substance in the plant, and a combination of substances may be what helps people.

Law enforcement officers have compassion for the sick, Brodie said. But he's suspicious of people who say they have to smoke marijuana to feel better.

'Of course,' he said. 'An alcoholic feels better when he takes a shot of whiskey.'

'Keeping something illegal is a deterrent,' he said, 'no matter what you say.'

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com


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