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Legal Pot

February 18, 1997
By: Joel Kirkland
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Like California, Missouri's legislature is being asked to legalize marijuana for medical uses.

On Tuesday (Feb. 18), the House Public Health and Safety Committee heard testimony Tuesday to give Missourians similar rights.

House Bill 601, sponsored by Columbia Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, would allow people with a litany of debilitating diseases including Cancer and AIDS to smoke marijuana without being prosecuted for illegal use of the drug.

"I have seen marijuana directly save peoples lives," said Sheila Dundon, a Columbia nurse who has worked with cancer victims. "Marijuana actively works to save lives by saving peoples appetites. They may survive the treatment but the malnutrition kills them."

Though federal law does not allow outright legalization or permit doctors to prescribe marijuana, states may allow the criminal justice system to accommodate use for medical treatments, Wilson said.

"There isn't anything that contradicts federal law," Wilson said. "We were trying to be very careful so that we don't legalize or prescribe marijuana. I think this bill is clearly in the jurisdiction of states."

The measure essentially makes it legal for courts to dismiss a case or acquit a patient or care giver arrested for possessing marijuana based on evidence that the drug is being used for medicinal purposes.

"It provides a legal defense so we don't impose more suffering on people with bonafide medical reasons (for using marijuana)," Wilson said.

In a taped message to the committee, a woman suffering from the eye disease glaucoma asked legislators to close there eyes and imagine not only the lose of eye sight but being prevented from taking medicine to slow the process down.

"Do you know how I feel when I have to go to the streets and buy marijuana like a common criminal?" she asked.

Since voters passed the initiative in California and Arizona in November, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said she would penalize doctors for prescribing marijuana to patients. Wilson has tried to distance her proposal from the California and Arizona initiatives.

"I do not want to put doctors in that position," Wilson said. "My feeling is that we should interfere as little as possible with the doctor/patient relationship."

Dan Viets, a volunteer for the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the Missouri legislature passed a resolution in 1994 asking the federal government to end the prohibition on marijuana's medical use. The federal law still stands.

The federal government now allows some research universities to use marijuana for purposes of medical research, Wilson said. But, the government has been restricting that use in recent years, she said.

Wilson's proposal would give doctoral-granting universities, which include the University of Missouri, the ability to possess marijuana for research projects related to the drug's medicinal use.

"This bill would provide for closely controlled research," Wilson said. "We specifically encourage university research in medicinal purposes."

While doctors and prestigious medical journals have come out in support of medical use of marijuana, the federal government argues that much of the research is yet to be done.

The bill does not provide a state agency or devise for universities to obtain marijuana legally. However, Wilson said, researchers may get marijuana through the federal government.

Though there were no individuals testifying against the proposal, which has not yet been up for a vote, there were several people testifying to the drug's benefits in fighting diseases like glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

Jim Hammond of St. Louis told the committee that marijuana eased the pain of multiple sclerosis nearly 90 percent of the time he used it. Both Hammond and Wilson said statistics show there have been no deaths from overdosing on marijuana.

"It seems to me it's one of the safest drugs I could take," Hammond said.