Advocates share their support for using medical marijuana

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — When Sheila Dundon began chemotherapy treatments to combat breast cancer in 2007, she experienced all the side effects she'd seen in patients as a registered nurse. She felt the shooting pains, the pale-in-the-face nausea, the unwillingness to get out of bed each morning.

One symptom she didn't expect was fuzzy-headedness, the sense that her brain was trapped in an egg beater. Her psychiatrist pointed out that all those anti-depressants she was taking might have led to a mental condition called serotonin syndrome.

Off the record, he told her that marijuana could help. Asked how she got it in a state where it's still criminalized, Dundon called it a "gift from God."

But she goes into detail about the morning she finally felt the pharmaceuticals fade away and the pot suddenly take effect.

"It was like this black veil of horror had been lifted off my head," she said. "It reduced down to a tolerable level what was literally making me want to kill myself. That's how bad it got inside my head."

Sixty-one-year-old Dundon shared her story a little over a month ago at a cannabis law reform conference in St. Louis hosted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Show-Me Cannabis, a marijuana activist group in the state. Like other advocates, she believes the time might be coming for Missouri to legalize pot for medicinal purposes.

The Columbia Missourian ( ) reports that twenty-three states have medical marijuana programs, and the issue is surfacing in Missouri. Two competing proposals are already vying to get on the November 2016 ballot, with lawmakers pointing to growing bipartisan support for the use of medical marijuana, as long as it's under a doctor's supervision.

A Harris poll conducted in May revealed that 81 percent of 2,000 respondents across the United States supported medical marijuana. Among Republicans in the poll, 69 percent voted in favor.

The two proposals for constitutional amendments in Missouri are banking on the perception that the medical route has more popular backing. Rather than repeat the so-far unsuccessful efforts to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, a push for medical cannabis would be a plausible first step.

Medical marijuana programs were enacted in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska before recreational marijuana was legalized for adult use. Missouri passed a medical marijuana law in 2014, but it is restricted to cannabidiol (cannabis oil) and only for intractable epilepsy.

To put a proposal on the statewide ballot, however, is still a challenge. Under state law, a ballot initiative must gather at least 157,000 signatures by May from six of Missouri's eight congressional districts.

One effort comes from a coalition called New Approach Missouri, which has the support of Show-Me Cannabis.

The organization has filed two initiatives with the Secretary of State, both to permit state-licensed physicians to recommend marijuana to patients with serious illness and medical conditions. Excess revenue from an additional 4 percent tax on pot, above state and local taxes, would go toward veterans' services across the state.

Under the plan, doctors would be allowed to recommend pot to patients with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma or multiple sclerosis. The marijuana could come in different forms such as strains for smoking, THC capsules and cannabis oils.

New Approach Missouri estimates that about 75 cultivation facilities could be licensed across the state. Also, qualifying patients could grow up to six plants at home.

The group released its first commercial, a video in which actors mimic police mug shots as they admit guilt for using medical marijuana.

Jack Cardetti, a former spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, was hired as the campaign adviser for New Approach Missouri with his political consulting firm Tightline Strategies. Cardetti said this proposal is the more reasonable of the two options, with additional funding going to veterans instead of a new government program.

Months before drafting the proposal he said they were looking at successful legislation already passed around the country.

"What we really did in the first phase was look at which states did a really nice job implementing the program," he said. "When we did that we really found an overarching theme: what is best for patients."

Brad Bradshaw, a licensed Springfield physician and attorney running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor next year, is behind the second proposal. His plan would legalize medical marijuana, impose a significant tax on it and direct the money toward medical research.

Bradshaw gets agitated when people assume his campaign is solely about legalizing pot.

"Really, it's quite the opposite," he said. "It is the development of a medical research institute in Missouri to generate cures for cancer and other incurable diseases and generate money for the state through taxes on medical marijuana. Legalizing medical marijuana is a sexy issue, research for cures is not."

Called Missouri Research, the Bradshaw plan would favor licensed pharmacists as dispensers, with no provisions for home-growing and cultivation centers. Marijuana would be taxed 75 percent at the point of sale on top of the 10 percent wholesale tax.

Choosing to put the profits toward medical research was a no-brainer for Bradshaw. Since graduating from medical school, he said he's been bemused by the slow progress on incurable diseases. There's always talk of raising awareness for a cure, he said, but less in the way of finding one.

According to a January study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, funding for research in America dropped 0.8 percent every year from 2004 to 2012.

It took nearly two years for Bradshaw and his campaign committee, Go Missouri, to draft a proposal describing a statewide institute to be run under the Department of Health. The impetus to center it on medical marijuana was that it was more popular — and potentially more profitable — than a mandatory statewide tax.

Bradshaw estimates his plan could raise $45 million to $58 million a year for the state and that doesn't include what he said are possible profits from research.

"This is something unique to our proposal — we have established with our medical research institute that any cures or discoveries that are developed, Missouri owns the intellectual property rights on those," he said. "That means if there's a miracle drug that comes that's worth billions of dollars, that's billions of dollars for the state of Missouri."

That money could go toward projects such as infrastructure, education and medical care, he said. But the bulk would contribute to the research institute campus, which counties across Missouri could vie for through public votes.

Cardetti said the intentions of the proposal are noble. He just doesn't think Bradshaw's going about it the right way.

"We think his heart is in the right place. We just don't think an 85 percent tax on cancer patients and others with debilitating illnesses is necessarily a patient-centered plan," he said. "There also isn't a quicker way to make a popular bipartisan issue less attractive than slapping a big tax on it."

Bradshaw has defended his tax with the claim that it would come out to less than $1 per person given the cheap price of producing weed.

He has voiced concerns about the opposing campaign as well, saying it will put a lot of money in the pockets of the rich backers of the Show-Me Cannabis organization. He also thinks the provision allowing certain patients to grow pot could lead to illegal distribution.

What Bradshaw and Cardetti agree on, though, is that Missourians are ready for this issue, even if they're not about to join the states legalizing recreational pot just yet.

Dundon, who supports New Approach Missouri's campaign, said she is glad the stigma surrounding the drug is drifting away. Marijuana not only lifted the cloud from her mind, but also made it possible for her to cope with the depression that went along with a cancer diagnosis.

Going to radiation treatments, chemotherapy sessions and meetings with doctors sucks energy like air out of a balloon, she said. She spent hours curled into a ball on the couch. She was hardly able to form her hand into a fist. She didn't want to eat.

At cannabis events, she said marijuana gave her the necessary boost to keep going, and it can do so for others with chronic illnesses.

She said Show-Me Cannabis tends to think it means more coming from her, someone who earned a master's degree in public health before working with the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

"They said, 'you need to do everything you can to tell people about this. ... They don't believe us when we say it, they think we're just a bunch of dopers,'" Dundon said, laughing. "I promised those people that I would never stop fighting to get marijuana available for medicinal purposes as long as I live."

Keith Snelling of Barnhart, Missouri, another medical marijuana advocate, admitted that his reputation would be closer to that of a town pothead, but he also has a medical history. He grew his own plants until his home was raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in February.

The 63-year-old said he wasn't worried about being interviewed for this story. "It's all out in the open now," he said.

Like Dundon, Snelling said he began smoking marijuana to cope with depression, which stemmed from a heart attack he suffered in May 2000. Once he was discharged from the hospital, he said he was forced to go on disability leave from his operator job with the local sewer district. He credits weed with getting him off the couch.

Legalizing medical marijuana would change everything, he said — it would make it OK for people in pain to legally seek the same relief he found.

"Marijuana saved my life," he said. "I truly believe that."


Information from: Columbia Missourian,

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Columbia Missourian

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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