February 22, 2003 - 12:55 am
By Courtney Lowery
Gazette State Bureau
Larry Rathbun spent 22 months in Montana State Prison for trying to ease the pain and spasms that come with multiple sclerosis.
The nine plants that brought about his prison sentence, he said, were the same marijuana plants that helped him in his fight against the wheelchair. Without it, in prison, he lost that battle.
"I walked into Deer Lodge and rolled out," he told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday in support of House Bill 506, which would legalize the use of medicinal cannabis, or marijuana, in the state.
Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, said he's sponsoring the bill because "pain counts." Under the measure, people certified by the state could grow or buy limited amounts of marijuana to help ease their pains.
The panel approved HB506, 13-5.
John Masterson, director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a Missoula doctor who is an authority on medicinal cannabis, teamed with Erickson to draft HB506, which would protect those using or growing marijuana for medicinal purposes from prosecution. The bill would set up an identification system for approved patients, administered through the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Dr. Ethan Russo, a Missoula neurologist who helped draft the bill, said it would help patients with migraines, nausea and other side effects of medical treatments such as chemotherapy and would help patients with AIDS, neurological diseases and glaucoma, as well as multiple sclerosis.
"We now know that cannabis positively influences the disease itself," the doctor said. "It's not just for MS patients, but others suffering from other ongoing, nerve-based pain."
Robin Prosser, a Missoula activist who went on a 60-day hunger strike last spring, also came to speak for the bill. Prosser has an immunosuppressive disorder and other conditions that she said cause chronic pain, heart trouble and muscle spasms. She said she's on 15 medications, but she's allergic to traditional medicines.
"I would like to get past the point of just trying to feel well enough to be here, to do things," she said. "I'm in pain every day, and it's not my fault that I'm sick. It's not my fault that medical science cannot come up with a proper drug."
Only one person spoke Friday in opposition to the bill. Dr. Hollis LeFever, a family practitioner from Glasgow who is a cancer survivor and has glaucoma, spoke on behalf of the Montana Medical Association. Cannabis has not been FDA-approved, he said, and physicians have no way to administer or monitor its use in their patients. It also can harm the cardiovascular system and causes emotional problems, he said.
And federal law would not allow doctors to prescribe pot, he said.
Russo later said that HB506 does not ask physicians to prescribe, but allows patients to use cannabis.
HB506 was patterned after an Oregon law. So far, nine states have adopted similar laws, including Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.
A 1998 study done by Montana State University-Billings, and Montanans for Medical Rights found that 70 percent of Montanans supported or strongly supported policies that allowed for the safe and legal access to medical cannabis.
"If we must have a war on cannabis users, what I would encourage as
a policy to at least remove the sick and wounded, the people who are in
pain and have these debilitating diseases," Masterson said. "Remove them
from the battlefield of this drug war."
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