A week after the state Corrections Department abandoned a proposed rule that would have banned anyone on probation or parole from using medical marijuana, one Missoula man says he's already reaping the benefits.
"I was told that I could go ahead and toke up again," said David Michaud, 39, a convicted felon and stay-at-home dad who uses medical marijuana to relieve chronic migraine headaches, pain and nausea. "Now I'm just following my doctor's advice."
In 2000, Michaud was arrested with 4 ounces of marijuana during a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colo., and was subsequently convicted of felony drug possession. Earlier this year, Michaud and his wife moved to Montana, where he is registered as a medical marijuana patient and has four prescriptions for the drug signed by three physicians.
But Michaud said his probation officer told him he couldn't fill those prescriptions, and suggested he instead ask his doctor for a prescription to Marinol, a synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana. But Michaud says, and many patients agree, that the synthetic treatment is not as effective because it mimics just one substance in the cannabis plant, when a combination of substances may be what helps relieve the pain.
During a March hearing in Helena, Michaud and other critics of the proposed Corrections rule testified that Montana's medical marijuana law, passed by voters in 2004, does not allow any penalty for using medical marijuana, regardless of a person's criminal history.
Michaud said he disclosed his marijuana use to his probation officer after studying the finer points of Montana's medical marijuana law, which places no restrictions on probationers or parolees.
"So I told my probation officer that I had started following my doctor's advice again and was smoking marijuana, and she sent me to jail for three days," Michaud said.
Diana Koch, chief legal counsel for the Department of Corrections, said her hands are tied because of the way the initiative-passed law was written.
"The medical marijuana statute just doesn't allow criminal consequences for someone who is legitimately authorized to take medical marijuana," she said.
But despite the DOC's recent decision, Koch said, people can still be charged with a probation or parole violation for their medical marijuana use. However, those cases will be reviewed based on a person's medical condition and whether they are at risk of becoming addicted to the drug, she said.
"It's not strictly out of the question, but we'll be taking it on a case-by-case basis, rather than make it a standard rule," Koch said.
Still, Koch worries that allowing probationers and parolees to use the drug will compromise their chance of rehabilitation.
"We hope this isn't going to give a carte blanche license to every drug offender who wishes to obtain marijuana," Koch said. "It is so difficult to rehabilitate people with drug addictions when they are told it is OK to have drugs. We just hope public safety does not get out of hand, and the public is not as safe if drug-addicted people are allowed legitimately to have a drug."
Koch also said the department is not inclined to interfere with doctor-patient relationships.
"That's a decision they should be able to make together, and we won't get in the middle of it," she said.
Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United, an advocacy group for medical marijuana patients, said the Corrections Department's decision will affect a very small number of people, "so it's not a big issue in the grand scheme of things, but for their individual interests it is hugely important."
"Mr. Michaud is one of a number of people on probation who have been demonized over the past year by the department," Daubert said. "Our organization exists to represent the interests of medical marijuana patients, and while the number of people on probation who are also medical marijuana patients is extremely small, the department was denying those folks their right to medical marijuana."
Daubert said between 600 and 700 Montanans overall have received such prescriptions from about 150 physicians.
Michaud said his life is easier now that he doesn't have to defy his probation officer, and that the pain management is critical to his quality of life.
"It's awful not being free of pain," he said. "I mean, they could prescribe me narcotics, or painkillers, which are more toxic and more expensive than cannabis. It's a shame there's such a stigma on marijuana."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com.