Cottleville Mayor Don Yarber is on a mission to put medical marijuana on the state ballot.
"This has to be done almost undercover, but the support is there," said 70-year-old Yarber. "I think politicians would be surprised at the number of people that would approve medical marijuana use."
The Cottleville Board of Aldermen in July unanimously adopted a resolution Yarber drafted supporting legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
"The feedback was all positive," Yarber said. "I tried to take what I consider a daring step by bringing the topic up and getting people talking about it."
Yarber said he is working with organizations and talking with people in Jefferson City, trying to pressure legislators to put a medical marijuana referendum on the Missouri ballot.
The Cottleville resolution supported Missouri House Bill 277, introduced last March by Rep. Kate Meiners, D-46th District. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-129th District, blocked the bill, which called for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Meiners, who represents south Kansas City, said last week she hoped to reintroduce the bill by Jan. 11.
"It is not unusual for bills to be introduced every year, for years and years," Meiners said. "You have to be tenacious."
Yarber called marijuana a "compassionate drug" that had "proven medical benefits" for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, relieving symptoms of nausea and appetite loss.
His wife, Sylvia Yarber, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. Doctors removed a 1-centimeter malignant tumor from her right breast.
"Once you bring the word 'cancer' into your life, you are filled with doubt, concerned about your loved one, wondering if she will live," Don Yarber said.
Sylvia Yarber, 66, underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatment and six months of bi-weekly chemotherapy. Each chemo treatment left her with a metallic taste in her mouth that lingered for several days, she said.
"It was a weird feeling, like chewing on a gum wrapper," she said. "Even fruit had a metallic taste. Food tasted bad, so I didn't eat right. I was weak and throwing up."
Don Yarber said his wife would become "violently ill" on their way home after treatments at Christian Hospital Northeast in St. Louis. She was losing weight.
Yarber said a friend suggested his wife try marijuana. The friend's brother had struggled through chemotherapy until he tried marijuana, which relieved his nausea and restored his appetite. The Yarbers decided to give it a try.
"There was no big turning point," Don Yarber said. "It was suggested and I followed through. I had the opportunity to help someone I loved. I was willing to gamble with that. So was she."
Yarber said he was "able to secure two joints," but would not say how or where he obtained them. His wife smoked one before her chemo treatment, then took two puffs in the car immediately after treatment, he said.
"The first time she did, she said, 'Let's go eat,'" Yarber said. "I said, 'You got to be kidding me. You want to eat?' She said, 'Yes, I'm hungry.' We went to Denny's and she ate a big breakfast."
Sylvia Yarber continued smoking marijuana before and after the rest of her treatments.
"Medical marijuana took that metal taste away," she said. "It made me feel a lot better. It lifted my mood. I was amazed at the results."
Sylvia Yarber said she stopped smoking marijuana as soon as her chemotherapy ended. She said she has not smoked it since. She has been cancer-free for 16 years.
Don Yarber said people who have not personally experienced cancer might have a difficult time relating to the medical marijuana debate.
"I know there is someone out there now going through what my wife went through," he said. "I hope if they go out and try to do what I did for my loved one, they don't get arrested and become a criminal."
A St. Charles County man is facing criminal charges for allegedly growing marijuana for what he claims was medical use. Kenneth Wells, 56, is tentatively scheduled for trial Jan. 26. Wells said marijuana reduced seizures, pain and other symptoms he has suffered since having a stroke in 1983.
Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states. In at least five states, the push toward legalization received a boost from the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's largest marijuana policy reform organization. Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization sent Don Yarber a signed Christmas card that he displayed on his desk last month.
Bruce Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project's director of communications, said the organization followed the progress of House Bill 277 last year, but it is not very active in the Missouri Legislature.
"We haven't had the impression that there is the critical mass necessary for us to launch an all-out campaign," Mirken said. "Ultimately, this is a matter that should be decided by citizens of Missouri. If there is no local base of support, nothing we do will help very much."
Meiners said other state representatives told her they have received overwhelmingly supportive phone calls and e-mails from constituents who want to see the medical marijuana bill passed. But most representatives are not taking it seriously, she said.
"They know that probably nothing is going to happen with it, so they are not really too concerned about it," she said. "It has a stigma attached to it."
Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-19th District, said the issue has not even been "on the radar screen" in Jefferson City. Davis said she opposes legalizing medical marijuana, calling it a "recreational drug" that serves as a gateway to harder drugs.
"I'm sure there are people who believe there is medicinal value from all illegal drugs," Davis said. "If you asked every alcoholic if he thought there was medicinal value in alcohol, he would say yes. It elevates his mood, makes him feel better."
Davis said legalizing marijuana for medical use would be a first step toward mainstreaming the drug for general use.
"If you say it is safe for one person, you might as well say it is safe for everyone," she said.
Davis has announced she will challenge state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-2nd District, in the August election.
Rupp said he is against legalizing marijuana for any purpose.
"I understand that Mayor Yarber has a strong personal belief on this issue, and have discussed the issue with him before," Rupp said. "However, I am not in favor, nor would I be supportive, of putting this issue on the ballot."
Rupp said the issue had "no legs in the Capitol building" and is viewed as a "far-left agenda item." Rural legislators, looking at the toll drugs have taken in urban areas, believe legalizing marijuana would result in increased drug abuse that would ruin their communities, Rupp said.
Mirken said there was no evidence that marijuana was addictive or served as a gateway to harder drugs. Mirken said there was "clear scientific evidence" that medical marijuana can help certain symptoms that are not adequately relieved by conventional medications. Besides easing chemotherapy side effects, published trials show marijuana can relieve neuropathic pain from nerve damage, Mirken said.
Mirken said marijuana is less dangerous than many legal prescription drugs, including OxyContin and morphine.
Davis said there are already a variety of legal drugs to relieve pain and treat all kinds of mental conditions.
"I can't believe with all the things on the market, there isn't something that works better than smoking a joint," she said.
Marinol is a legal prescription drug that contains synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol, an active ingredient in marijuana. Available in pill form, it is used to relieve nausea, vomiting and appetite loss associated with chemotherapy and AIDS treatments.
Sharon Stott, spokeswoman for the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, said the center's doctors prescribe Marinol instead of marijuana because it is legal and contains a controlled amount of the drug.
Mirken said Marinol has disadvantages. Some people cannot swallow pills. It takes longer to work than inhaled marijuana, he said. A pill contains a fixed dose, compared to inhaled marijuana, which provides the user with more control over their dosage, he said.
Yarber said he and other medical marijuana supporters would have to wait several years before accomplishing their goal.
"Democracy works," Yarber said. "Put it on the ballot and let people vote. This should not be a political thing. It should be about compassion for a terminally ill patient."
By Raymond Castile
January 10, 2010
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Cottleville mayor makes medical marijuana his mission