Initiative 148 (I-148), the Montana medical marijuana initiative, appears headed for victory on November 2, but organizers are taking no chances. A poll commissioned by the newspaper the Missoulian two weeks ago has the measure winning by two-to-one, with 58% supporting and 29% opposed (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/356/poll.shtml). Still, with just under three weeks until Election Day and the deputy drug czar dropping in to speak out against I-148, the Medical Marijuana Policy Project of Montana, or MMPPM (http://www.montanacares.org) rolled out a series of television ads Monday designed to solidify what looks to be overwhelming public support for the measure.
The Montana Medical Marijuana Act, as the initiative is also known, would set up a registry for patients and caregivers who suffer from a broad range of "qualifying conditions," including, but not limited to, cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, chronic pain, chronic nausea, wasting syndrome, muscle spasms, and seizures. Registered cardholders would not be subject to arrest for possessing or growing marijuana for their medical conditions, but the limits are set at a relatively low six plants and one ounce of marijuana.
The initiative's language makes clear that it does not allow for driving under the influence or for smoking in schools, prisons and jails, or workplaces where the employer objects. Neither will government or private health programs be forced to reimburse patients for medical marijuana costs.
That is too much for Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) deputy director for state and local affairs Scott Burns, who was in Montana last week ostensibly to talk about methamphetamine. "I cannot tell anyone how to vote," Burns said at an October news conference in Billings. He then proceeded to tell people how to vote -- against I-148. "This is a con by people who want people to legalize marijuana in this state," Burns said. "They always start with the medical marijuana issue."
While MMPPM has had no problem producing suffering patients who benefit from marijuana use, such as Missoula's Robin Prosser, whose prosecution by local authorities is now on hold, Burns denied that his opposition meant he didn't care about sick people. "It's not about that," Burns said. "It's about our children," he added, trotting out the repeatedly debunked canards about the number of teenagers in treatment for marijuana use. "The marijuana problem is a national problem," he argued. "We don't need more marijuana available to our children."
Burns also warned that whatever Montana voters decide, marijuana use would still be illegal under federal law. There would be "no safe harbor" for medical use, he said. "If this initiative passes, the DEA is not going away. It is still illegal in the US to possess marijuana."
"Burns is difficult to deal with because he sneaks in and out, I think for obvious reasons," said an exasperated Befumo. "He comes in and makes these outrageous statements, and we just respond. But here comes the federal government interfering in our election and they don't follow Montana laws and they don't file campaign statements."
While Befumo and MMPPM have had to deal with Burns, they have not had serious in-state opposition. "We have seen no opposition from any of the county attorneys, although the governor came out and opposed the initiative, which is her right," said Befumo. "But she is misinformed. She said there is no good medical support for marijuana as medicine, but she obviously hasn't reviewed the literature. Whoever is responsible for informing her on this issue fell down on the job."
But if in-state opponents are not well-organized, they do exist. Roger Curtiss, director of alcohol and drug services for the city of Anaconda and Deer Lodge County, told DRCNet he was opposing I-148. "I work in addiction services, I've seen the lives ruined by drugs, and I can't support prescription pot," he said. "I've got to say wait a second."
Curtiss fears that medical marijuana is a stalking horse for legalization, he said. "What is the next step? If it becomes legal medicinally, what then?" he asked. "Is this opening the door to looking at our drug laws in general?"
Despite the opposition of Curtiss and the drug czar's office, Befumo is confident that Montanans understand the issue and will support the measure. "This is a fairly conservative state with a libertarian streak, but my experience has been that there are so many people who have been affected by cancer or other serious illness, whether themselves or because of a family member, that this cuts across party and ideological lines," he explained. "This measure will keep people who are suffering from debilitating illnesses and who are using marijuana with their doctors' support from being prosecuted and jailed. Montanans understand that. If there is a medication that will help people, they want it and they don't want people to go to jail for it."