Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) doesn't kiss babies or stump at whistle
stops, but he does go door to door and speak with his constituents every
election cycle. A few years ago, Erickson knocked on a door and received a
request that surprised him.

"I'm used to people talking to me about schools or property taxes," says
Erickson. "But suddenly this guy asks if I believe in the use of medical
marijuana. I said, 'as a matter of fact, pain counts, so yes I do.'"

The door he had knocked belonged to John Masterson--the director of the
Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws (NORML). Now, at the behest of Masterson and NORML, Erickson has made
good on his position and introduced House Bill 506, which would legally
protect medical marijuana patients from prosecution.

Such legislation, most often associated with California, is actually in
effect in nine states, including Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and
Oregon. Even Montana's neighbor to the south, Wyoming, has a similar bill
that has already made it out of committee and onto the floor.

"We're just getting on board with the rest of the West," says Ethan Russo,
M.D., of Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists, who helped draft the bill.

Russo says that the bill isn't meant to be symbolic; He believes it's a
legitimate effort to legalize a legitimate medicine.

"This is a serious thing," he says. "Nobody should worry that this is an
excuse to light up because they have a hangnail. This is designed as a
treatment for serious medical illnesses."

Russo admits that smoking may not be the best way to receive medicine, but
he says that marijuana's medicinal effectiveness is beyond debate.
Medicinal marijuana's many uses include pain relief (particularly of
neuropathic pain) and stimulation of the appetite (specifically for
patients suffering from HIV, AIDS wasting syndrome, or dementia), he says.

"Cannabis has always been medicine as long as recorded history," says
Russo. "What you're seeing right now is just a temporary historical

The bill is bound to have detractors who think that it's an attempt to move
toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The criticism has long
dogged the efforts of pro-medical marijuana legislators and NORML.

"I am sure that there will be distracting testimony claiming that this bill
is something that this isn't," says Erickson.

The bill is set for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday,
Feb. 21. Both Russo and Erickson encourage supporters to testify, and they
know they have thousands--NORML reports that more than 70 percent of
Montanans support legalizing medical marijuana. But they also expect
numerous opponents spouting the usual complaints: the bill undercuts the
war on drugs, it sets a bad example for kids, etc.--second-opinions that
may carry more weight with legislators than a doctor's prescription.

Pubdate: Thu, 20 Feb 2003
Source: Missoula Independent (MT)
Copyright: 2003 Missoula Independent