Gazette opinion: Voting again on medical marijuana

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Billings Gazette

If Montana voters had approved Initiative 182 in 2004, they probably wouldn’t be voting again this year on medical marijuana. I-182 would decriminalize the medicinal use of marijuana by Montanans with specific medical problems — without the loopholes exploited several years ago in the original initiative. In September, there were 12,730 medical marijuana cardholders in Montana, but 11,850 didn’t have any legal provider for their marijuana, according to Montana health department statistics. Unless the cardholders can grow their own, and wait for the plants to produce usable marijuana, they aren’t getting it. On Sept. 1, the court ruling upholding the Legislature’s 2011 rewrite of the original 2004 initiative took effect.

The biggest change is that legal marijuana providers are limited to serving only three patients. So even though there were still 457 providers registered with the state last month, they could serve a maximum of 1,371 patients. Who are these cardholders? More than 2,600 live in Gallatin County and 1,300 live in Yellowstone County, but DPHHS reported cardholders in all 56 counties.

Last month, the Montanans who could legally use marijuana included nine in hospice care, 511 suffering wasting syndrome, 845 with cancer, glaucoma or HIV; 1,153 suffering central nervous system disorders, 177 with Crohn’s disease, 400 with epilepsy, 1,221 with intractable nausea or vomiting, 186 with multiple sclerosis, 1,791 with painful peripheral neuropathy, and 7,842 with severe chronic pain. (Some had more than one type of ailment that qualified them to legally obtain marijuana.)

The biggest change I-182 would make is giving those seriously ill Montanans access to legal marijuana by getting rid of the three-patient limit imposed by the 2011 legislation.

If voters approve it, the initiative would continue existing law that:

-Limits patients to having no more than four plants or 1 ounce of usable marijuana in their possession at a time.

-Bans advertising marijuana or products made with the drug.

-Forbids doctors to be affiliated with marijuana providers.

-Forbids people with criminal records from being legal marijuana providers.

-Bans public use of marijuana. I-182 doesn’t allow marijuana use in health care facilities, on school property and in public transportation, public parks, youth centers or churches.

Provisions new in I-182 include:

-The premises used to grow, process and store legal marijuana would be subject to state health department inspections.

-Legal marijuana would be tested by state-approved labs to determine the potency and purity of the drug provided to patients.

-Providers and patients would pay fees to cover costs of inspections and administration of the medical marijuana program.

Since I-182 garnered enough signatures for the Nov. 8 ballot, we’ve heard the stories of Montanans who never thought they would use marijuana until they got very sick — and other medicine didn’t help, or had worse side effects than marijuana. We heard from Bob Ream, a former Montana legislator battling terminal cancer, about how marijuana helps him sleep. Katie Mazurek, a young wife and mother in Bozeman, shared her story of being unable to access marijuana legally for lack of a provider. Mazurek is in the fight of her life against advanced breast cancer. I-182 would add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of diseases for which medical marijuana can be recommended by a licensed physician and legally used by a registered card holder. The addition of PTSD is of particular concern for Montana veterans who returned from war with the invisible wounds of this disorder.

If voters approve I-182, marijuana will still be illegal in Montana. Use of the drug will only be legal under the medical conditions it was back in August — with the addition of PTSD. The question on the Nov. 8 ballot is basically whether Montanans want state law to keep small quantities of marijuana legally available to Montanans with pain, nausea, insomnia and other suffering from serious disorders. If your answer is yes, vote for I-182.

We aren’t encouraging anyone to use marijuana, but compassion prompts us to say that, for some seriously ill people, marijuana may be a better alternative than prescription painkillers. If their doctor advises that marijuana may ease pain, seizures or nausea, we don’t want to deny that option to Montanans suffering with cancer and other debilitating illnesses.