Medicinal marijuana clouds the floor in Helena 

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 aberration.”

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.

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