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Medical marijuana debate heats up at Badger Club

 | Published on 5/1/2010

A local prosecutor and a medical marijuana patient faced off at the Columbia Basin Badger Club on Friday over the state law allowing therapeutic use of the drug.

Washington law allows patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a written recommendation from a doctor.

They're also allowed to assert a medical marijuana defense when charged with possession of the drug if they can prove they're authorized to use it for medical treatment.

Chet Biggerstaff of the Three Rivers Collective argued that serious problems exist with the law -- including the fact that it remains a crime to buy the cannabis plant or its seeds.

The way the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana prevents it from being prescribed or dispensed through a pharmacy, Biggerstaff said.

That means the only way patients whose doctors have recommended use of the drug to alleviate pain can get it is by growing it themselves or having a designated care provider grow it for them. Up to 15 plants can be grown by one person.

But to grow the plant, patients have to commit a crime in obtaining the seeds, Biggerstaff said.

"We have to break the law to participate," he said.

What Biggerstaff and other patients would like to see is the establishment of medical marijuana collectives where several patients could come together to grow their plants, and dispensaries where patients could obtain their medication if they couldn't grow it themselves.

The Three Rivers Collective tried to set up shop in Richland but was told by the city that medical marijuana collectives are illegal.

"All patients are looking for is the ability to get our medication safely and locally," Biggerstaff said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Steve Lowe said that studies exist showing marijuana can have some benefit for patients with some terminal or debilitating illnesses, but he fears the cost to society of a "growing marijuana addiction in our community."

Lowe cited a number of violent crimes that have occurred in the county and elsewhere in the state related to marijuana, including a shootout on Interstate 182 in Pasco that Lowe said was over the theft of medical marijuana.

"That's a serious problem with respect to violence in our community," he said.

He likened marijuana to the prescription drug OxyContin -- an opium derivative -- in that he believes marijuana is highly addictive and dangerous.

Biggerstaff disputed the addictiveness of marijuana, saying government studies have debunked the notion that people become physically hooked on the drug.

"It is less addictive than caffeine," he said.

He also said marijuana isn't dangerous like opioids, which can kill the user if too much is taken.

"It takes far more than any human can consume to kill yourself with cannabis," he said.

Biggerstaff and Lowe agreed that more scientific research is needed into the medical benefits of marijuana, but Biggerstaff said another thing needed is compassion for the patients who need the drug as their only respite from severe pain.

He told his own story of having been seriously injured in several vehicle crashes -- including having two titanium bolts screwed to his spine -- and said that marijuana is the only thing that alleviates his suffering.

"We need to get past the hysteria," he said. "We need to get to the truth. We need to help the patients."

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