Pot to the people

Selling a medical marijuana initiative



Paul Befumo is a punctual estate planner who sports a beige corduroy suit and wears his hair closely cropped. To him, 4/20 is a date. Until recently, he hadn’t heard of Jay Day, an international May Day legalization demonstration billed as “The million marijuana march.” But Befumo, who has a science background, learned that the drug can alleviate the nausea and lack of appetite experienced by many people with cancer. He believes it should have been prescribed to his father and friends who suffered from cancer. So after initial reluctance because of the credibility his day-job requires, Befumo agreed to spearhead a citizen initiative for the November ballot, a measure that would allow the production, possession and use of marijuana by patients with debilitating medical conditions.

The attorney general’s office approved the petition on April 20. Befumo says his colleagues were smugly asking whether the decision to approve on 4/20 was coincidental. “I’m going 4/20? I don’t get it,” says a bemused Befumo. “I’ve come across some things like that. It just makes me feel kind of square.”

Time and again, though, he’s encountered similarly prim and proper folks who believe in legalizing the medical use of marijuana, because they’ve seen it work. “When something is effective,” says Befumo, “it’s really hard to keep it under wraps.”

If passed, the initiative—I-148, the Montana Medical Marijuana Act—would affect both patients and physicians. It would provide protection for physicians who recommend the use of marijuana if the potential benefits outweigh the health risks. It would protect patients who suffer from debilitating conditions, such as chronic pain, nausea or seizures. It would prohibit the use of marijuana on school grounds, in public places and in correctional facilities.

Petitions arrived in Missoula last week. Befumo and a crew of petitioners have until June 18 to collect 20,510 signatures. Befumo hopes to collect 30,000.

Saturday’s Jay Day march was ripe turf for signature collection. A string of musicians, who had played for the International Wildlife Film Festival’s Wild Walk parade, moseyed down Fourth Street and ambled to Jacob’s Island for their second show. Around noon, the scene was set: drums, a tambourine, a thermos and bb shaker, a lavender Electra cruiser, toasted and salted hemp seeds, and a handful of folk ready to volunteer the valuable uses of hemp—it cleans the earth and Henry Ford once built a car, in part, with cellulosic hemp, for instance.

An advertisement for Jay Day calls for a million to march. “I don’t see one million people here,” says a man who identifies himself only as Farmer John.

About two dozen people sat under the pine trees at Jacob’s Island. For the most part, they are musicians, a group of friends who drum together on full moons. It was hard to find anyone militantly in favor of legalization. Enforcing the ban against cyanide heap leach mining is probably more urgent, says Farmer John. Leslie Hannay, who wears a buffalo mask, doesn’t smoke at all. “It makes me unable to socialize,” she says. She approves of decriminalization, though. “It’s pretty arbitrary considering the pharmaceutical industry and tobacco and alcohol,” she says.

A 19-year-old Missoula business owner was one of the few people present solely for the cause. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer about two years ago, and is still undergoing radiation treatment. The daughter is her mother’s supplier. “I believe that it should be legalized for medical uses,” she says.

At 12:28 p.m., Angela Goodhope, carrying a hemp backpack and the parasol of a tourist guide, decided it was time to march. The group made its way west along the river trail without finding many fellow travelers.

The only person moving quickly was a petition-collector, a woman who wants to be identified as Tess. “I’m going to drop back and ask these two if they’re registered to vote,” she says.

The two signed.

“Two of my best friends’ mothers have gone through breast cancer,” she says, explaining her involvement. “We’re not the types to use illegal substances.”

Collecting petitions makes her nervous.

“I’m actually really fearful of this,” she says, though she isn’t doing anything illegal. “I know that I’m not. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous.”

On Higgins Ave., the group’s energy intensified. The drumming echoed off glass windows. Goodhope propped her parasol so that it covered two. Is she happy with the turnout? She smiles. “Sure.”

On Broadway, two petitioners run into each other.

“How you doing on signatures?”

“Pretty good, pretty well.”

At the courthouse gazebo, the parade’s destination, a joint quickly made its way through a handful of participants.

“Civil disobedience,” smiled one man.

The turnout is sparse—30 max. It feels like activists’ day off.

“It was pretty meager,” says Dug Murray, a self-described “young buck” wearing two horns leftover from the Wild Walk.

For Tess, Saturday was a success. “I had nobody say ‘no’ to me today,” says Tess. In an hour and a half, she collected 87 signatures for Missoula County, three for Ravalli and two for Lake. The initiative requires signatures from 5 percent of the voters in half the counties in the state in order to make the ballot.

“I think there are a lot of people out there who support this,” says Befumo, “but are afraid to say so because they think they’re the only one.”

The voter initiative is based on a 2003 legislative one, HB 506, which failed in the Montana House on a 60–40 vote. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) sponsored that bill. He won’t make a prediction for I-148, but says he saw committee members vote in favor of HB 506 who then changed their votes once the bill hit the House floor. He has more faith in people who are not politicians: “Politicians are much more chicken than the voters they represent.”

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