By Alfa · Oct 24, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    If Paul Befumo had known that marijuana could have eased his father's
    pain during the last few months of his life, he would have broken the
    law to get it for him.

    Befumo, a 48-year-old registered investment adviser in Missoula, lost
    his father, also named Paul, to lung cancer two years ago after the
    family auditioned a long list of drugs to reduce his pain and nausea
    and to increase his appetite.

    What they didn't try was the one treatment some chronically ill
    patients say has been their last, best resort: marijuana.

    Since then, Befumo has researched the drug's benefits and hopes
    Montanans will reach beyond marijuana's stigma on Nov. 2 when they're
    asked to vote to legalize its medicinal use.

    "If you look up the definition of medicine, it doesn't say something
    that's injected, or comes in a pink pill or comes in a white pill,"
    Befumo says.

    Befumo is the spokesman for the Medical Marijuana Policy Project of
    Montana, which has been encouraging voters to pass Initiative 148, the
    Medical Marijuana Act. If voters approve, Montana would become the
    ninth state to allow chronically ill patients to use marijuana with a
    doctor's prescription.

    Others, like Jim Shockley, an attorney and state legislator from
    Victor, oppose the initiative, fearing it would encourage the use of
    marijuana among the general population, overwhelming police and
    doctors who would have to monitor the drug's legitimate use. Besides,
    he adds, legal treatment options already exist.

    If the measure passes, patients could use a limited amount of
    marijuana to relieve symptoms suffering from illness such as cancer,
    glaucoma and HIV/AIDS or treatments that produce chronic pain, nausea,
    seizures, or muscle spasms and atrophy.

    A patient or caregiver could also register to grow up to six marijuana
    plants and possess no more than one ounce if they provide a
    physician's certification that the patient has a debilitating
    condition and could benefit from marijuana's use.

    Befumo says that since the initiative campaign began, he's had calls
    from more than 50 Montana patients who say the passage of I-148 would
    help them.

    One of the people who called Befumo was Robin Prosser, a Missoula
    woman who has suffered for about 20 years from an immuno
    disorder and was arrested in May when police found marijuana and drug
    paraphernalia in her home. Prosser has said she used to treat her
    illness because she's allergic to prescription narcotics.

    In September, a Missoula judge told Prosser she could continue to use
    marijuana medicinally if supported by a physician. She was also told
    that charges against her would be dropped if after nine months she has
    no additional trouble with the law.

    Prosser's case marked progress in the Marijuana Policy Project's
    national quest to legalize medical marijuana, Befumo says, but he adds
    that his own story shows how far there is to go.

    Befumo's father tried many drugs, including Marinol, which contains
    synthetic versions of marijuana's active ingredients, but couldn't
    keep the pills down and still suffered from nausea and decreased
    appetite toward the end of his life.

    "My dad liked to be really present and in control of himself," he
    says. "When I had gone to visit him the last few times, the pain
    medication he was on really kept him as kind of an invalid. When you
    talk to people who are in this situation, that's one of the worst
    parts of the drugs."

    Befumo says that for some patients, using marijuana has cut their
    opiate dosages in half, allowing them to be more coherent. And while
    alternative drugs like Marinol are available, some patients believe
    they're not as effective.

    "When they came out with Tylenol, they didn't take aspirin off the
    shelf," Befumo says. "Not everything works for everybody."

    Not everyone is as convinced as Befumo of the medicinal need for

    Michael Spence has been the chief medical officer of the Montana
    Department of Public Health and Human Services for seven and a half
    years. Before that, he worked with HIV and AIDS patients on the East
    Coast for more than two decades. He says he doesn't recall any
    patients who couldn't take Marinol or another synthetic drug.

    "I really can't say that was an observation that I made," he said.
    "I'm not saying it doesn't happen."

    Shockley, whose own wife is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, says
    even if some people can't use an alternative, it's not a good idea for
    Montana to pass the law.

    "Are there some people in the world who nothing else will help?
    Probably. But I imagine they are very, very, very few," he says. "If
    there are any, they're just going to have to get by on something else."

    But Befumo says his group has received letters and phone calls from
    many medical officials across the state who support the initiative.

    Spence is not surprised.

    "I think that for the most part, the medical profession is willing to
    look at anything that might be beneficial to our patients' outcome,"
    he says. "If this might be helpful, why not give it a whirl?"

    Still, he cautions, there are many uncertainties surrounding the

    "Different people have different pain thresholds," Spence says, adding
    that he's concerned about the initial uncertainty that would result
    from not knowing how much marijuana to tell a patient to use.

    Because the law would allow a patient to grow up to six plants and
    possess up to one ounce of marijuana, Shockley says he's worried
    patients may be allowed to grow too much and there could be a problem
    with patients selling or giving away their extra supply.

    "We'd have marijuana gardens all over the state," he said. "This law
    creates a tremendous loophole for people who want to grow marijuana

    But Befumo insists that the patients who would be allowed to grow
    marijuana wouldn't run the risk of being imprisoned and losing their

    "If you look at the people they're going after, they're not people you
    would consider criminals," he says. "You don't want to be covered
    under this statute."

    He adds that because any authorized user would have to carry a
    registration card, the law would not provide an extra burden for
    police beyond counting how many plants a person has.

    "Most police officers I know can count up to six," he

    But Lt. Levi Talkington, a Lewistown policeman and president of the
    Montana Police Protective Association, says the issue is more
    complicated than that.

    "With any new statute, there's always kind of that gray area that
    needs to be tested," he says. "At first I would think there would be
    some increased workload on the law enforcement."

    Talkington suggests the state would need a watchdog force to keep the
    prescribed use of marijuana within legal bounds. He would also like a
    clearer interpretation of whether police would be able to search a
    house to see how many plants a person was growing.

    "How do I know that they have the legal limit of what they're supposed
    to have and not an entire grove in the back of their house or
    something?" he says.

    He also worries I-148 is a move toward the general legalization of

    "It's kind of one step closer," he says. "We are (already) seeing a
    lot more marijuana. It's not uncommon anymore when you arrest someone
    and search them to find marijuana on them."

    Befumo concedes the initiative may change society's attitudes about
    marijuana but says its purpose is not to make the drug legal for everyone.

    "If you look at the statute, it's just very narrowly defined," he
    says. "But there have to be hundreds of people, even thousands in
    Montana, who that could work for."

    Shockley, Spence and others are also concerned that marijuana has long
    been identified as a stepping stone toward other, more dangerous drugs.

    "It's certainly considered by many people as a gateway drug and
    legalizing (it) is giving someone entry into a harder line of drugs,"
    Spence says.

    Joan Cassidey, chief of Montana's Chemical Dependency Bureau, says
    more people are admitted to treatment programs for marijuana abuse
    than for the abuse of any other drug except alcohol. Of nearly 7,000
    admissions in 2003, 1,400 were for marijuana.

    But Befumo says the "gateway drug" argument is questionable. The fact
    that many hard-drug abusers say they've used marijuana doesn't mean
    most marijuana users go on to harder drugs.

    Nor does Befumo, a father of three, agree with Shockley's concern that
    allowing the use of medicinal marijuana usage sends a bad message to

    "What's the wrong message?" he said. "We shouldn't put sick people in
    jail? I don't have a problem with that message."

    Nor do most Montanans, according to a Lee newspapers poll conducted in
    late September. Some 58 percent supported I-148, 29 percent opposed it
    and 13 percent were undecided.

    California was the first state to allow the possession, use and growth
    of medicinal marijuana in 1996. Since then Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon,
    Washington, Nevada, Colorado and Maine have been added to the list.
    Arizona has legalized its use with a doctor's prescription, and
    Maryland now protects marijuana patients from incarceration, but not

    Befumo says medicinal marijuana has triumphed in every state where
    voters have been asked to allow its use. "I'm cautiously optimistic,"
    he says.

    He adds that the best part of this campaign has been educating
    patients and their loved ones about the benefits medical marijuana
    could provide.

    He says the way he sees it, those who do know about it have two
    choices if their loved ones are sick: Don't use it or use it illegally
    and risk getting caught.

    "I would have tried it," Befumo says. "I would've obtained it
    illegally for him. I don't think people should have to face that choice."

    Paul Befumo is out to change attitudes toward medical marijuana.

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