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Starving for medical marijuana

RIP: Robin Prosser Robin Prosser

Source: The Chronicle

Starving for medical marijuana

Amy Linn, Special to The Chronicle Saturday, May 18, 2002


Missoula, Mont. -- She wears the look of someone pinned beneath a boulder, a woman exhausted by pain and frustration.

So why would 45-year-old Robin Prosser, a devoted single parent of a teenage girl, go on a hunger strike -- today in its 29th day -- when the outcome could be fatal?

The answer is pot. A desperate need for medical marijuana. Prosser, a talented pianist, has spent the past 17 years battling an immunosuppressive disorder and other conditions that she says cause chronic pain, heart trouble, muscle spasms, nausea and daily migraines. In search of relief, Prosser has tried nearly every prescribed potion and pill, including morphine and other painkillers (she is violently allergic to them), anti- nausea medications (ditto) and a long list of therapies (nothing works). Finally, she tried marijuana.

"It made the pain go away," she says, squinting against the incongruously cheerful sun slicing into the living room of her meticulous home on a street of similar houses. "The pain is never completely gone," Prosser corrects herself. "But with marijuana, the pain is manageable."

With daily pot use, Prosser says she can compose music, write fiction, take care of her 17-year-old daughter and live a fairly normal life. Without it, "I'm sunk."

And so Prosser, a very small voice in a very large state, has taken up a fight that has intensified across the nation, from the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., to Alaska, Hawaii and Maine.

On one side are patients, doctors and voters who consider cannabis to be a beneficial and necessary medication for cancer pain, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, nausea and AIDS-related weight loss, among other medically recognized uses.

On the other side is the Bush administration, federal law and the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter ruled last May that federal drug prohibitions prevail over the wishes of individual states and citizens: Smoking marijuana is a federal crime, period.

In California, where voters approved an initiative in 1996 that allows marijuana use for seriously ill residents, the fallout has been particularly ugly. Since September, Drug Enforcement Administration agents have raided, shut down or confiscated plants and patient records at medical marijuana operations in Ventura County, El Dorado County and West Hollywood. In February, the DEA raided the Harm Reduction Center on Sixth Street in San Francisco and arrested three people on drug charges that could bring them each 40 years in prison.

Even in Montana, Prosser felt the aftershocks. "The federal government is really trying to close down all the pot clubs, which is all the more reason to do this now," she says. On April 20, she stopped eating.

"There's no alternative. It was either this, or cut and run -- move to Amsterdam or Canada or some other country with legalized medical marijuana," Prosser says. But her daughter -- who supports her mother and calls her actions "courageous" -- wants to finish high school in Missoula. That means Prosser would have to move alone. "I don't want to leave my daughter," she says. "But I'd do that before I'd die on her and not make it to her high school graduation."

A Missoula neurologist familiar with her case, Dr. Ethan Russo, agrees that Prosser would benefit from having pot by prescription. "I believe that using cannabis is helpful to her condition," he says. What's unfortunate, he adds, is that someone in Prosser's situation would feel the need to take such drastic measures. "In other countries, unlike the situation here, the medical use of clinical cannabis has been recognized as a right of the people," says Russo, editor of the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. "But our government is still taking the position that this is a dangerous drug that has no medical use. And it basically is a pervasive lie."

To Prosser's surprise, the lie doesn't hold as much sway in Montana as one would expect. Big Sky country might be known for yee-hawing cowboys and gun- toting right-wingers, but almost all the locals she has heard from have expressed their support -- albeit their private support. No public rallies have been staged in her behalf; no local television stations have given her any coverage. (She has been deluged, meanwhile, with e-fanmail from abroad, and a Web site -- www.cannabisnow.org -- chronicles her hunger strike). So what will she do if no one pays attention? What will make her eat again? "Some action from George Bush," she says.

Protection from local authorities would help, too. In the past, she was well enough to make the long drive to Seattle to buy from a cannabis club there, but she says she no longer has the strength. Prosser wants assurances that she can grow marijuana, strictly for her own use, in the privacy of her home without fear of prosecution.

"I cannot do that," says Missoula County Sheriff Doug Chase. It would be up to the courts to sort out whether Prosser deserves an exemption or some special treatment, he says. "It sounds kind of inhumane and callous. But I'm certainly not in a position to say that I'm not going to enforce the law." Missoula Police Chief Bob Weaver is more blunt: "She'll be busted if she grows pot and we learn about it. The courts can look at mitigating circumstances."

Prosser says she doesn't want to be a criminal. That's her point. "I don't w ant to break the law. But I don't want to be forced to live and be sick." She has joined political groups pushing for marijuana legalization; she's gone to rallies, written to legislators and joined a class-action lawsuit, all to no avail. "It's a pretty monolithic group that's opposed to marijuana," says a worried-sounding Lawrence Hirsch, the Philadelphia attorney who represented Prosser and 164 others in the medical marijuana class-action litigation, which ultimately failed.

Her current choice of action is a long shot at best. It is unlikely that the White House will call. But although she has been briefly hospitalized (for an electrolyte imbalance) and has lost 33 pounds ("I had some to spare," she jokes), Prosser says she will not back down.

"If I had another choice, some other medication to take, I'd take it in a heartbeat," Prosser says. "I want to do this for all the hundreds of other people in the country who are ill and dying and are in the same boat, waiting for the laws to change. And I'm selfish, too. I want this for me and my daughter. If I could just have this one thing."

Prosser accepts an invitation to sit at her gleaming grand piano in the corner. Her hands race across the octaves, then she settles into a lush melody that suddenly becomes recognizable: it's the first few bars of "Misty."

"Look at me," the words go, although she doesn't sing them. "I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree."

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