Pot shots 

Heed the voice of the people on medical marijuana

The firebombing of two caregiver shops in Billings this week brings Montana's on-going medical marijuana debate to a new low. And now the Legislature is going to get involved and propose "fixes" for the citizen-passed initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Unfortunately, much of what is currently being suggested is both hypocritical and unjust—exactly what one might expect from those who never had the courage to address the issue in the first place.

Montana voters passed I-148, the medical marijuana initiative, in November 2004. What some folks seem to have forgotten is that the measure garnered a stunning 62 percent of the vote, more than any politician on the ballot that year. It was, as they say, vox populi—the voice of the people—speaking loudly and clearly to say it was time to drop the insanity of criminalizing a substance that has been used for millennia by people all over the planet and is documented to provide relief to those who suffer from any number of illnesses.

Six years later, however, a growing number of Montana's politicians are hell-bent on retreating to their moralistic pedestals to once again demonize both the substance and those who provide and use it. The creeping arrogance of conservative municipal officials, no matter their actual real-world experience or lack thereof with medical marijuana, is evident as several cities rushed through various forms of bans on allowing new medical marijuana businesses within their districts.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to recall an analogous situation in Montana's history. Mining has easily killed more people in our state than any other business. In fact, it continues to kill people on a regular basis, including the long-suffering victims of W.R. Grace's asbestos poisoning, the gasping emphysema of silicosis from Butte's mines, and the on-going deaths and injuries of coal extraction. And that says nothing of the cancers and subsequent deaths of those exposed indirectly to the toxic by-products that remain scattered across the landscape after working smelters or mines go defunct.

Despite the mining industry's phony claims, even those operations lauded as "state of the art," such as Golden Sunlight, leave perpetual pollution in their wake long after the paychecks stop. Yet, we haven't seen communities hurry to pass ordinances to keep such destructive processes from harming citizens and the air, water and land shared by all.

So far, about the only real ban on the death and destruction caused by mining is the citizen-passed initiative to stop new cyanide heap-leach operations. And guess what? The Chamber of Commerce opposed that initiative, but hypocritically remains silent as municipalities ban the commerce of new medical marijuana operations.

Despite the frenzied claims of anti-marijuana zealots, it's worth taking a moment to objectively consider the relative damage done by medical marijuana. Let's see, there has never been a single recorded case of a fatal overdose of marijuana. Not one. That some people abuse the legal right to obtain a medical marijuana card may be troubling, but if you keep it in perspective, the overall abuse of alcohol by the general population is of significantly greater concern. Just take a look at the fine examples set by Congressman Rehberg falling drunk off his horse in Kazakhstan during an official visit to that country. Or take last year's late-night Flathead Lake boat ride of state Sen. Greg Barkus. Both hold themselves out to be good, family-values Repub-licans. Neither, however, would likely embrace reinstituting Prohibition.

Some would say the emergence of the medical marijuana industry is simply too much, too quickly and too openly. But again, let's take a moment to compare the medical marijuana industry to the existing pharmaceutical industry. While you may see a medical marijuana ad or even a billboard, the reality is that you cannot escape the ubiquitous advertising for prescription drugs. It's in your face in magazines, newspapers and on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year, every year.

Do folks abuse prescription drugs? Are they taken by those who don't need them, by those who are underage or who don't have a prescription? The answer is undeniably "yes." Just ask Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, who pledged to set up a prescription drug database because he feels the abuse of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed. Yet, we don't see municipalities banning pharmacies, do we? Nor do we see cities dictating where pharmacies may be located in relation to schools.

Are there problems that need to be addressed as Montana's medical marijuana law matures? Sure there are, just like with almost every law on the books. That's why we have a Legislature. Every two years the laws regulating virtually every aspect of our lives get tweaked to make them work more efficiently, to reflect changes in our society, and to fill in the gaps or address unintended consequences that only become evident after the law takes effect.

In this respect, our medical marijuana law is no different. To their credit, many within the emerging medical marijuana industry have already stepped forward to suggest changes that they believe will make the law work better. Among those suggestions is more regulation of the industry itself. Again, this is not out of the ordinary in the case of evolving laws and holds promise to address the problems that arose after the passage of I-148.

Constructive suggestions from those with hands-on experience are one thing, but retribution by those who have little or no experience, but feel morally compelled to meddle with a citizen-passed initiative, is altogether different. Many states have passed—and others continue to pass—medical marijuana laws. Montana can and will learn from their experiences as they will learn from ours.

Evolution is one thing, devolution quite another. As the wave of reefer madness swirls among Montana lawmakers, it would serve them well to remember those two little words—vox populi—and tread gently and with great care on the voice and will of the people.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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