Marijuana: Medicine Or Drug?


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Because Robin Prosser uses prescribed marijuana to ease her chronic pain and illness, she calls it medicine.

Because Jeff Sweetin is a federal agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, he calls it a dangerous drug.

And because federal law supersedes state law, making it illegal to grow, sell, purchase or use marijuana, even for health-related reasons, Prosser is out of luck.

"From the DEA's standpoint, it's not medical marijuana, it's just plain marijuana," said Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA's Rocky Mountain Field Division.

That's how federal agents saw it earlier this month, when they nabbed Prosser's shipment of marijuana from a UPS delivery truck - it was marijuana, plain and simple. And illegal.

But for Prosser, who suffers from a lupus-related immunosuppressive disorder, an illness that for the past 22 years has caused her heart trouble, muscle spasms, nausea, bone fractures and migraines - maladies that daily marijuana use helps mitigate - it's the difference between full-time agony and the ability to function.

"I'm a sick person," said Prosser, 50. "But I'm also intelligent. I've raised a child in this community who's about to graduate from the university, I've been a productive citizen, I was in the PTA, and yet I'm considered a criminal."

Prosser thought she'd witnessed the ushering in of a new era in November 2004, when voters approved the Montana Medical Marijuana Act. The law allows patients to use marijuana if they suffer from diseases like cancer, glaucoma and HIV, or from chronic pain.

Prosser, who qualifies as a patient, can grow her own marijuana or designate a caregiver to grow or obtain marijuana for her. According to the act, either Prosser or her caregiver can possess six plants or up to 1 ounce of dried marijuana at a time.

The new law was like a godsend for Prosser, who's tried nearly every pill doctors could prescribe, including morphine, anti-nausea pills and other painkillers, even though she's allergic to them all. Marijuana, Prosser says, is the only thing that makes her pain manageable.

"I don't see how they can deny me a thing that saves my life," she said. "I can't eat without it."

On March 30, Prosser learned that a package containing 20 grams of marijuana had been confiscated by federal agents. The package was clearly addressed to Prosser and even gave the return address of her designated caregiver, who is registered through Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services.

"They confiscated 20 grams of marijuana," Prosser said. "Less than an ounce, and yet it's the difference between agony and the ability to live my life."

According to Roy Kemp, who maintains the registry as the state's licensing bureau chief, 319 patients in 36 counties are currently recognized under the Montana Medical Marijuana Act. Kemp says 118 Montana physicians and 116 caregivers have signed up to assist qualifying patients like Prosser.

Kemp's office at the Department of Health and Human Services also ensures that doctors are licensed by the state, and that appointed caregivers haven't been convicted of a felony drug offense.

In short, Kemp makes sure everything is above board. But at the behest of a law enforcement officer, Kemp has to confirm whether a person is registered with the state as a medical marijuana patient or as a caregiver, which is exactly what happened in Prosser's case.

According to special agent Sweetin, even though the federal government tends to focus on a brand of drug trafficking out of sync with Prosser's case, the discrepancy between state and federal law means the agency is obligated to investigate every complaint.

"The reason we encounter these cases at all is that when we get a call about something suspicious, we're duty bound to go check it out," Sweetin said. "What's the alternative? The alternative would be to say, 'Hey, don't worry about it.' We get involved in these cases because it's our responsibility to investigate."

So when a UPS employee flagged the package as "suspicious," apparently due to its strong odor, the company's security officer called 9-1-1 and the complaint was forwarded to Missoula's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force.

"We did seize that marijuana," Sweetin said. "It came to our attention that there was a package being shipped via UPS that was thought to contain marijuana. We obtained a federal search warrant because we had probable cause to believe it contained marijuana."

And although Sweetin said Prosser almost certainly won't face federal charges, the DEA is more inclined to prosecute caregivers, many of whom provide marijuana for more than one patient.

"Is she in violation of federal law? Absolutely. Will she be prosecuted? No," Sweetin said. "But if you're a caregiver shipping marijuana all over Montana, you stand a relatively good chance of experiencing federal prosecution."

That's a harsh reality for Prosser, who says it's become increasingly difficult to find caregivers willing to risk the possibility of federal charges. Her only alternative now is to obtain marijuana from dealers on the street, which costs more and makes it impossible to settle on a consistent strain of the drug.

"I need a consistent, steady supply of the same strain," Prosser said. "But it's so hard to find a caregiver when the minimum punishment for growing and cultivating is five years under federal law."

Prosser said she had been with her current caregiver less than two months prior to the DEA seizure, and isn't sure where she'll turn next.

"It was the first time I was able to find a consistent supply, so I don't have to fear running out," Prosser said.

According to Kemp, a single ounce of marijuana lasts a patient about 10 days.

"It forces people to be constantly looking at how to get their next ounce," Kemp said.

Prosser says she's been living with that anxiety for more than a decade.

In 2002, Prosser sustained a 60-day hunger strike and lost 76 pounds to call attention to the need for legally prescribed marijuana. She attempted suicide four times in two years because, she says, the pain became unbearable.

"I can't believe I'm having to come back and battle for this again," Prosser said. "I'll go on another hunger strike and this time I won't stop."

But despite state laws, the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical use remains mired in a federal resolve to keep the drug illegal.

"Confusion reigns on this issue and it's not going to get any easier as more states go down the same pass, from the legalization of medical marijuana to the legalization of an ounce or less," Sweetin said. "It just creates a lot of confusion."

That line of reasoning doesn't sit well with Prosser, who is near tears as she recounts the daily frustrations of her life - the paranoia of taking a puff in the parking lot at Target so she won't get sick while shopping, the conflict in trying to be a good person and a responsible mother while being labeled a criminal by the government.

"Two years of this law not working is all I can take," she says.

Newshawk: CoZmO -
Source: The Missoulian (MT)
Author: Tristan Scott
Copyright: 2007 Missoulian
Website: Missoulian - Missoula Montana's Newspaper
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