HELENA – Since Lori Burnam’s medical marijuana supply dried up, her weight has dropped from 74 to 69 pounds and her glaucoma has worsened to the point where she has undergone emergency treatment to relieve the pressure on her eyes.
The marijuana had kept the glaucoma in check for the 66-year-old Hamilton resident with lung cancer. It helped her appetite and stopped her nausea. But her supply has been rationed for much of this year because of the uncertainty brought by a restrictive medical marijuana law and the back-and-forth court rulings dealing with it.
The fate of that law is now in the hands of voters, who will be asked Tuesday to ratify or repeal the new restrictions. Their decision may determine how Burnam lives out her last days, she said.
“They’ll write me out morphine and Oxycontin (prescriptions), but I don’t want to be a zombie,” Burnam said. “There will be a point of time where I will be like that, but now I want to enjoy the time I have left.”
State lawmakers passed the restrictions last year as the medical marijuana industry was peaking with more than 30,000 registered users and nearly 4,900 registered providers, called caregivers, across Montana.
The Republican-led Legislature called it an out-of-control industry that had gone beyond the intent of the voters who approved Montana’s original medical marijuana law in 2004.
First, lawmakers voted to repeal the law altogether and make medical marijuana illegal once more in Montana. After Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed that measure, the lawmakers passed another bill in the waning days of the session.
The new law requires providers to distribute marijuana to no more than three people, and the providers were not allowed to be compensated for their services – or to even recover their costs. In addition, the law tightens the qualifications to be a registered user and adds more oversight to doctors who recommended patients to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Essmann, the bill’s sponsor, said the new law takes medical marijuana back to the small program that Montanans voted for in 2004, and that the industry activists are overstating the effects of the law as a last-ditch effort to gain votes for its repeal.
Medical marijuana advocates protested that the new law has the same effect of the repeal bill because it would cut off access to marijuana to thousands of people. They sued, and District Judge James Reynolds of Helena blocked key portions of the law from taking effect, including the limits on providers, so the case could be heard.
Last month, the state Supreme Court lifted hold and said Reynolds had used the wrong kind of constitutional review in making his ruling. The justices sent the case back to Reynolds with instructions to take another look, this time using a standard of review that was less strict.
On Friday, Reynolds issued another temporary restraining order blocking the provider limitations once more. The judge acknowledged in his order that the Supreme Court’s ruling meant the advocates have less of a chance to win the case, but he would block those provisions while the case was still in his hands to prevent users from suffering immediate harm.
The ruling gives medical marijuana users a temporary reprieve, but makes Tuesday’s vote that much more important for people like Burnam and her provider, Katrina Farnum.
Farnum said has cut down her plants at least twice to comply with the new law, meaning the users under her care have an unstable, limited supply.
She is now waiting to see whether the voters ratify the new law. Even if they do, Farnum is uncertain whether she will continue as a provider.
“I would, if I could physically afford it,” Farnum said. “I would help these people without a doubt, if I could even break even.”
Even if the new law is repealed, most people on both sides of the issue agree the old law needs to be improved.
The matter will likely come up before lawmakers in the 2013 legislative session. But former medical marijuana advocate and lobbyist Tom Daubert said he is not optimistic, given the opposition in the Legislature and disunity among advocates.
“I don’t see anything other than a steep hill if the object is to make something that works for patients,” Daubert said. “The real patients that Montana voters really wanted to help are the ones who are screwed.”
Farnum has already had to choose which three patients she will keep if the law takes effect and she decides to keep operating. She drew names from a hat, then made changes when those whose names she drew told her to choose those in their last stages of life.
That’s how Burnam came to stay on her list.
Burnam said she doesn’t know what she’ll do if the law is upheld by voters and Farnum goes out of business. She can’t grow her own, because she doesn’t know how and because the new law makes it illegal for her to obtain seeds or plants.
“Unless I happen to be one of the lucky three, the only option I have is to go to the black market or kick up my morphine to where I’m a freaking vegetable,” she said. “I want to enjoy the time I’ve got with my family, eating and laughing.”