Medical marijuana gains support

December 30, 2004

Connie Farrow, Associated Press

Now that Columbia has an ordinance allowing patients to smoke marijuana on doctors' orders, backers plan to push for the same medical relief for all Missourians.

A survey by Southwest Missouri State University indicates there may be growing support for legalizing marijuana as a therapy option for residents undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from illnesses such as AIDS and glaucoma.

A majority of Missouri residents support medical marijuana if it is prescribed to patients in extreme pain, according to the Springfield university's telephone survey.

Eighty-five percent of those same 720 Missourians, however, agree marijuana impairs the user's ability to function, and 79 percent believe it is addictive.

'We were surprised to realize that people apparently see marijuana the same way they see legitimate pharmaceutical drugs that carry a high potential for abuse — opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, etc.,' said Gary Brinker, one of the associate professors who conducted the survey. 'They are against recreational use of these substances, but believe they do have legitimate therapeutic uses under a doctor's supervision.'

Columbia attorney Dan Viets said the survey mirrors a poll done for the nation's largest advocacy group for seniors, AARP. It shows nearly three-fourths of older Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use.

'I think it's very difficult for a politician to rationally justify not supporting this issue,' said Viets, a longtime state legislative lobbyist for decriminalizing marijuana and allowing its medical use statewide.

Viets pointed to his hometown, where a city ordinance allowing medical marijuana passed in November with nearly 70 percent support. He and his supporters are now determined to see Missouri join the 11 other states that have medical marijuana laws on their books.

Legislators have rejected various bills over the years aimed at stripping criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana ordered by a licensed practitioner. The most recent was this past spring, when a bill that would have forced a November statewide vote on the issue received a public hearing but failed to get out of committee.

Rep. Vicki Walker, D-Kansas City, who sponsored the bill, did not win re-election.

Viets said he has a 'loose knit alliance of support' ready to push the issue again.

'I'm not ready to discuss specifics,' he said. 'I expect that there will be medical marijuana bill filed in the next few weeks.'

Brinker, however, said the university's survey also could be used by opponents to highlight the fact that most Missouri residents believe marijuana carries a high potential for abuse. People surveyed reflect the state's population according to 2000 U.S. Census data, he said.

The survey was conducted between Nov. 8 and Nov. 23. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

There was some variation in opinions according to age, Brinker said. Middle-aged respondents showed the highest support under the most extreme conditions of dying and in pain, as well as for patients who cannot hold down food. Support for medical marijuana use when the patient is in pain was consistent for those under 65, but was lower for those over 65. Eighteen- to 25-year-olds, however, more often favored allowing the doctor full discretion in ordering marijuana, Brinker said.

When people were asked if they would like to offer any other opinions on the issue, the comments ranged from fear that it might be abused to support for making it available for anyone with health problems.

'God doesn't want us to put things like this into our bodies,' one respondent said.

Another said, 'We have spent too much money fighting something that is going to happen anyway.'

The issue is sure to get attention when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a pending California case that questions whether patients who use marijuana in compliance with state laws are constitutionally protected from federal arrest and prosecution.

Attorney General Jay Nixon said he wanted to wait for that decision, expected by March, before commenting on the issue.

Lt. Tim Hull, spokesman for Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the agency does not take positions on legislation.

'Our business is enforcing the laws that are on the books,' he said.

Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm, who opposed his city's ordinance, said he would fight against a similar state law.

'My concern is with the fact that it cannot be prescribed, so there's no clear direction as to what a physician's recommendation really is, and what makes that valid and not valid,' he said.

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