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Growing pains

Medical marijuana advocates seek clarity at conference

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As the American Cancer Society kicks off its second annual Montana Pain Initiative Conference in Missoula this week, Tom Daubert is one attendee looking to come away feeling better. The founder of Patients and Families United, Daubert works to support those across the state who use medical marijuana as a prescribed medicine. That effort, however, has remained maddeningly difficult.

“Over 230,000 Montanans suffer persistent chronic pain,” Daubert says. “And the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is actively interfering with the practice of medicine and the relief of pain.”

In 2004, 62 percent of Montana voters passed Initiative 148, which legalized medical marijuana for people with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, severe nausea and chronic pain. But after Montana’s law passed, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Raich strengthened federal oversight, allowing prosecution even in states with medical marijuana laws. That discrepancy makes medical marijuana a constant uphill battle for state patients.

This weekend’s conference, mandated by the 2005 Montana Legislature as part of an effort to help improve the state’s pain treatment policies, brings together national legal experts, physicians, pharmacists, law enforcement officials, social workers, therapists, educators and patients to discuss a number of issues related to the issue of pain management. Daubert’s group sees the Sept. 5 and 6 gathering as a perfect opportunity to address mutual concerns with police and health care professionals.

“Consistent, dependable access to medicine is a serious problem for pain patients in Montana,” Daubert says. “And we all have a shared interest in improving pain treatment,” which includes educating stakeholders about Montana’s medical marijuana law.

“Persistent ignorance” about the law among prosecutors and law enforcement fuels the problem, Daubert says. Even after months of meetings with patients, lawyers, legislators and law enforcement, his efforts are progressing slowly. In the meantime, many patients fear the looming risk of federal prosecution, especially after what they’ve seen recently.

For instance, Patients and Families United hosted its own pain conference in February 2008, after the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force raided and seized large quantities of marijuana from the Dillon home of Scott Day, a terminal pain patient. Day now faces numerous federal charges at a trial slated for later this month.

Daubert also cites several other incidents, alleging western Montana law enforcement is ignoring the state’s medical marijuana law and working with federal authorities to arrest legally medicated patients.

Mark Long, the narcotics bureau chief of the Montana Department of Justice, disputes the belief that “law enforcement has the interest, time or resources to use [medical marijuana patient monitoring] as some grand fishing expedition.” Long, who also plans on attending this weekend’s conference, says the state’s law has made it difficult on authorities, but that his department abides by the law.

“If we look at an investigation, and Montana law allows us to be involved, we will. If not, it’s hands off,” Long says. “If the feds say they want to step in on it, and say they want to go after it, we step away from it if state guidelines won’t let us prosecute. That’s their prerogative to do it…The federal guidelines are different than Montana’s.”

Bob Meharg is one of the patients caught in the middle. A disabled veteran and chronic pain patient, Meharg says he spent a winter hitchhiking and hobbling along Eastside Highway to and from doctor’s appointments after law enforcement seized his vehicle, growing equipment and medicine during a January 2006 raid on his house.

Meharg says officers from the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office and the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force searched his home and, although they found more than the single ounce-per-patient limit of marijuana allowed by Montana law, the raid was conducted illegally. Within 48 hours of his arrest, Meharg says a judge dismissed all charges and ordered the return of his prescription and, later, his car. Meharg was still responsible for $25,000 in legal fees, which he says he’s still paying back each month. He thinks the entire episode could have been avoided if law enforcement was more informed about the state’s medical marijuana law.

“If you don’t know the law, you shouldn’t be putting people in handcuffs,” Meharg says. “My motivation now is the patients, and keeping them from having to go through what I’ve gone through. People selling pot out behind the [bar]—that’s not what we’re about. We’re protected under the law, and they need to get that through their heads. They’re still going after people at gunpoint four years after our law passed. Sixty-two percent of Montanans [ who voted for the 2004 medical marijuana initiative and] said, ‘No, we want them protected,’ but law enforcement hasn’t grasped that. Everybody’s a bad guy to them.”

Long admits the gray area between federal and state guidelines contributes to the problem.

“[The state law] obviously does not help law enforcement out,” he says. “Anything that helps criminals in their activities, law enforcement is not for that…Ninety percent of those drugs and caregivers are totally legitimate, but the other 10 percent or so can end up on the street. Law enforcement has a different perspective. We’re the ones dealing with the 200-300 [drug related deaths] every year.”

But after 20 years working in Montana and 12 in western Montana, Long says he wants to “hear more about the other side of this issue—those prescribing medicine to people that need it.”

That sort of shared discussion is something Adam Wolf will be advocating for at this weekend’s conference. A staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project based in California and one of several national speakers slated to appear at the conference, Wolf believes the public’s opinion should be heard.

“States need not march in lockstep with the federal government’s misguided marijuana policies,” he says. “Across the country, as in Montana, voters do not want to spend taxpayer money to lock up sick and dying patients merely because they were heeding their doctor’s advice.”

The Montana Pain Initiative Conference runs Friday, Sept. 5, and Saturday, Sept. 6 at the Holiday Inn Parkside. For more information call 728-1004, x208.

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