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Starved for time

Marijuana hunger striker willing to go the distance

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While a healthy segment of Montana’s population was enjoying the fruits of Memorial Day cookouts over the weekend, Robin Prosser watched imaginary crackers hovering through her Miller Creek home. Prosser, the 45-year-old Missoula woman who began a hunger strike on April 20 to protest her inability to legally grow medicinal marijuana to treat an immunosuppresive disorder, says that she’s reached a sort of peace with the part of her that hungers after 36 days without food. Except for the damn cracker.

“I can’t stop obsessing about a wheat thin cracker,” she says, laughing and grimacing simultaneously while reclining on a couch. “All I can think about at times is this wheat thin, and it’s just floating there.”

Prosser was diagnosed 17 years ago with the disorder, which she likens to the condition suffered by some Gulf War veterans. She believes the disorder was triggered from her time as a security guard at a chemical plant, where she was exposed to chemical toxins of unknown origin. For 10 years, Prosser says, she tried every treatment and drug her doctors gave her, but the few she was not allergic to did not work.

Seven years ago, she realized that the marijuana she had once smoked on a recreational basis made her feel better than any of the pharmaceuticals she had tried. She began using pot as a medicine, and found that it gave her the closest semblance to a normal life she had experienced since her illness began.

Prosser became an activist for medicinal marijuana. She joined pro-cannabis groups that have backed initiatives calling for the legalization of medical marijuana, and she was a member of a federal class-action lawsuit against the government that was thrown out by a federal judge in Philadelphia about two years ago.

But when the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that medicinal marijuana clubs approved by voters in California, Oregon and Washington were illegal in the shadow of federal law, Prosser saw the movement lose much of its momentum. And when public service announcements on TV in the wake of 9/11 called her and other users of medical marijuana supporters of terrorism, she felt that the time of working within the system was over. With the fear of a violent pot bust preventing her from growing her own medicine at home —and the resulting harm that could befall her 17-year-old daughter, Samantha—Prosser made the strongest statement she could think of. She stopped eating. Since April 20, she says has ingested only water, herbal tea, the occasional cup of black coffee, and a potassium supplement that she hopes will keep her heart strong as her body consumes itself. She will not issue a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order in the event of a heart stoppage, and she fully accepts the fact that she will likely be fed through tubes should she slip into a coma. Though she denies her body the nutrients it needs to survive, Robin Prosser does not want to die.

If death is imminent and Prosser is conscious, she concedes that she will probably move to Canada, where prosecution of medicinal marijuana users is virtually nonexistent, or to Amsterdam, where cannabis use is socially accepted and legally sanctioned. But she knows that it may not be her decision to make, given her weakened state and existing medical condition. “If it’s an unexpected sort of thing, I’m walking around and my heart goes ‘boom,’ there’s not a lot I can do about that,” she says. “I try not to think about that.”

She lists the people who she believes could give her the sort of protection she needs to end her hunger strike. George Bush. Governor Judy Martz. (In a phone message to the Independent, Martz said that “My heart aches for this lady. But the legislative process really has to deal with these issues, and they have refused this particular issue, as they have in many other states.”) Or even, she says, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg.

“A simple statement from the county attorney would solve all my problems, because what’s the sense of going to get me if they’re not going to prosecute?” she says. “They don’t have to waste their time on me. I’m not a dangerous criminal.”

Prosser says that her resolve to starve herself has gotten stronger throughout her ordeal, that her inner strength has grown as her physical energy wanes. “Now, it’s almost a separate part of me,” she says. “It’s like a little Buddha inside or something that’s going, ‘Uh-uh, we’re doing this, this is the right thing to do, and don’t worry.’ It doesn’t feel like a question anymore, that I will break down and eat.”

Whatever the source, Prosser says that she has been helped along on her starvation journey. “I didn’t know what to expect, but from what I’ve read about other hunger strikes I kind of thought I’d be in bed right now with an I.V. in my arm,” she says. “I kind of feel that somehow I’m meant to do this, or protected in what I’m doing, or someone is looking out for me. And if something is protecting me, then I assume it will keep on protecting me, and I can see this to success. But that would be a long, awful summer. No hot dogs or barbecue!”

Prosser knows that the forces she stands against—the social, legal and economic powers that refuse to acknowledge marijuana’s potential for good—are many and backed by the political establishment. But she refuses to believe that the current mindset against pot cannot be changed.

“It has to be moveable. It has to,” she says. “I know it’s ridiculous to think that one person in Montana could do something like that. But those bastards don’t scare me. What scares me is that we’ve become complacent. It’s almost like we’re rolling over and accepting this. I won’t do that. And other people shouldn’t either.”

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