Marijuana mess 

Federal seizure undercuts state medical law

A Missoula medical marijuana patient at the fore of statewide efforts to establish Montana’s medical marijuana law is now confronting federal agents’ attention to the issue. On March 30, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in Missoula seized 20 grams of mailed medical marijuana en route to Robin Prosser, confirms Jeff Sweetin, DEA special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain Field Division.

The seizure marks the first time federal drug officials have tangled with Montana’s medical marijuana patients, who’ve been protected under state law since November 2004. However, the DEA’s involvement appears to mirror a national targeting of medical marijuana patients in other states since June 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled federal officials can ignore state laws permitting the sick and dying to use marijuana with doctors’ recommendations.

Prosser, 50, says the intercepted UPS package was one of two she receives monthly from her Flathead caregiver, who’s registered with the state to provide Prosser with medical marijuana. The prescription relieves a painful range of symptoms, Prosser says, resulting from the lupus-like immunosuppressive disorder she’s suffered from for 23 years. She utilized the private mail company for shipments since it’s difficult for her to make the trip and because the medicine stayed within state boundaries where it’s protected by Montana law.

Jeff Keener, communications manager for UPS, says local employees were suspicious of the package’s lingering smell and followed standard security procedures by contacting local DEA officials. Sweetin says DEA agents then obtained a federal warrant to seize the package.

“Because we’re paid by the taxpayers, which include citizens of Montana, we’re bound legally and ethically to investigate movement of illegal drugs, and marijuana is an illegal drug,” Sweetin says.

The legal implication of the seizure is not yet clear. Says Sweetin: “My understanding is that prosecution [of Prosser] has been declined, which is understandable in light of the amount taken,” although a spokeswoman from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, “We’re not able to confirm or deny the comments made by the DEA.” And while Sweetin wouldn’t comment on whether the sender of Prosser’s package may face prosecution, he did say, “If it’s our responsibility to open the package, it’s also our responsibility to investigate who sent it.”

The whole affair throws Prosser’s medical fate back into uncertainty. Since she’s allergic to most manufactured medicines prescribed to treat her degenerative illness, Prosser says marijuana is critical to her daily well-being. And though she’s rested easier since 2004 when 62 percent of Montana voters approved creation of a state medical marijuana registry—323 patients and 118 caregivers are now registered—Prosser says the program is futile if federal agents can just ignore it.

“I need my medicine, and I need to know that I can conduct my medical care legally,” Prosser says. “As it stands now, I’m in limbo.”

Sweetin insists the seizure of Prosser’s medicine doesn’t signify increased federal aggressiveness in Montana. He sees the battle between state and federal laws as having little to do with sick people, and more to do with attempts to legalize an illicit drug.

“The story that always makes the news is that these are sick, sick people; they’re dying without their marijuana—and I’m in no position to doubt Ms. Prosser—but the problem with these laws is that the sick people are being used to soften people’s attitudes toward these drugs,” Sweetin says.

He continues: “Believe me, if marijuana were safe, it would be legal. We’re kind of protecting people from their own state laws.”

Advocates who’ve successfully enacted medical marijuana laws in 12 states around the nation say federal officials are out of touch and turning patients’ medical fates into political footballs. Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, says there’s been a marked increase in federal raids and prosecutions of medical marijuana cases since the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision involving severely disabled patient Angel Raich. Most of them have occurred in California, where Raich’s Supreme Court case began, but Hermes says a recent Seattle, Wash., raid and the Montana seizure may demonstrate the DEA’s widening scope of interest.

“All of these examples are indicative of the federal government being backed up against the wall with fewer and fewer excuses to justify to the public that marijuana must be snubbed out as part of the War on Drugs, when in fact [surveys show] 80 percent of the populace in the U.S. favors the right to be able to access medical marijuana,” Hermes says. “The DEA is simply out of step with the people.”

One way around this debate is a national budget amendment preventing the U.S. Department of Justice from spending money to investigate those cases covered under state medical marijuana laws. The so-far unsuccessful legislation has been introduced the last four years by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and won support in 2005 from Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg. Hinchey’s spokeswoman says he intends to forward it again this year.

Nonetheless, Montana’s federal delegation is silent in regard to the DEA’s seizure of Prosser’s medical marijuana; Rehberg, Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Max Baucus offered no comment in response to Indy requests. Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath also had no comment.

Prosser’s case is drawing attention, though, from others around the state. Patients & Families United, a statewide support group for medical marijuana patients, is bringing Raich to Missoula to speak at two rallies on April 20. That day will mark the fifth anniversary of when Prosser underwent a 60-day hunger strike in Missoula to draw attention to her inability to use marijuana for medicine. Today, despite ostensibly successful efforts to establish medical marijuana in Montana (for which Prosser was literally a campaign poster-child), Prosser sounds as frustrated as she has in years’ past: “I’m so frustrated with the ignorance about this issue,” she says. “I seem to always be a test case.”

Angel Raich will appear with other speakers for a medical marijuana rally Friday, April 20, at noon at UM’s Oval, and again at 4:30 p.m. at the Missoula County Courthouse.
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