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Pot Hole: A southwest Missouri hamlet is leading the latest fight to legalize medical marijuana



Cliff Village, a tiny suburb of Joplin, has become the second Missouri city to legalize marijuana for medical use. Residents can pack their pipes with impunity, so long as their pot comes with a doctor's prescription.

But with a population in the double-digits and a local sheriff who vows to lock up any pot smoker he can find, the town's 30-year-old mayor, Joe Blundell, concedes that the move is "symbolism, pure and simple."

"I'd like to go and testify to legislators about this plant," says Blundell, who is wheelchair-bound, the result of a train accident in 2000. "I'd tell them I'm not a criminal, that I'm in a horrific amount of pain and I'd rather take something natural and holistic rather than something being pushed by Pfizer."

A handful of state lawmakers and pro-grass activists hope the actions taken by this southwest Missouri hamlet will help blaze a path for the statewide passage of a long-stymied medical-marijuana law.

"They've really taken the issue by the horns," says Dan Viets, coordinator of the state's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Perhaps lawmakers will realize that even rural communities have embraced cannabis as a legitimate form of treatment."

Cliff Village, which passed the ordinance February 1, modeled the legislation after a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives that would allow anyone with a doctor's OK to grow up to seven plants and possess an ounce of marijuana.

"I just don't see any reason why something that can be regulated by a doctor and can help people with their illnesses should be prohibited," argues Rep. Regina Walsh, a St. Louis Democrat who cosponsored the bill introduced last month. "I just don't see any reason why we can't alleviate their pain, especially if it's for something like cancer or some horrific illness."

If history is any gauge, however, it may be quite awhile before the state's sick citizens can legally fire up a joint. The latest proposal in the decades-old debate is identical to ones that have stalled in the state legislature the past two years.

"There's a stigma involved in this," says Rep. Kate Meiners, the Kansas City Democrat who introduced the bill. "When you envision someone smoking medicinal marijuana, what you see is a long-haired hippie. You don't see the little old lady with glaucoma."

Previous measures failed when former House Speaker Rod Jetton waited until the waning days of the legislative session to assign the bills to the Health and Human Services Committee, virtually guaranteeing that the measures would never come to a floor vote. It appears likely the new Speaker, Ron Richard, will continue using his predecessor's makeshift pocket veto.

"We don't have any plans to assign the bill to a committee," says Richard's spokeswoman Kristen Blanchard. "The Speaker and the caucus have priorities that have to do with our family-recovery plan and helping Missouri families who are out of jobs and that sort of thing."

Richard is the former mayor of Joplin, an unexpected hotbed in the statewide fight for medical marijuana. In addition to the rogue suburb of Cliff Village, a recent ballot initiative spearheaded by the Joplin NORML chapter received signatures from nearly 15 percent of the city's registered voters.

"He's a local business owner here in Joplin," the city's NORML president Kelly Maddy says of Richard. "He owns bowling alleys with bars in them, so he's no stranger to recreational substances. He knows it's a viable topic in this town. He seems reasonable and open-minded, but obviously he's kind of shying away from the issue the same way Jetton did."

When it comes to prescription pot, Columbia is the most progressive city in the state. The college town became the first and only Missouri city (prior to Cliff Village) to enact its own medical-marijuana ordinance in 2004.

For the most part, however, medical-marijuana lobbyists have found the grass to be greener in other states. In November, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to permit doctor-approved dope, joining thirteen others nationwide.

Because state- and city-level measures are at odds with federal regulations, the Drug Enforcement Administration has at times raided marijuana dispensaries and arrested patients in other states. After a new round of raids in California, a spokesman for President Barack Obama said "federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws."

Missouri lawmakers modeled their bill after Hawaii's medical-marijuana law, enacted in 2000. The amount of the drug that people would be permitted to possess is relatively small compared to other states. Washington allows its residents to keep up to 24 ounces of pot at a time — a quantity patients there argue is too little, and law enforcement contends is too much.

Opponents of medical marijuana assert that letting doctors regulate the reefer will only make the drug more widely available for recreational use and abuse.

"I already see a lot of abuse of legal prescription drugs out there," Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland says of Cliff Village's law: "I just see this as another way to misuse drugs."

Counters Viets: "These guys aren't going to risk their medical license just to give someone a joint. Nobody said it will be kosher to give out pot to anyone who wants it."

The Missouri State Medical Association, like its national counterpart, the American Medical Association, refuses to take a formal policy stance on medical marijuana. In recent years, though, the drug has been used to treat the symptoms of an increasingly broad array of illnesses.

St. Louis resident Mark Pedersen suffers seizures and severe migraines from the muscle-and-tissue disease fibromyalgia. He says he tried several high-powered prescription drugs for years but only found relief in marijuana. In 2005 he established the Cannabis Patient Network and began traveling the country, lobbying lawmakers and interviewing others who use marijuana medicinally.

"We're talking tens of thousands of people in Missouri who could be medical-cannabis patients, without a doubt," says Pedersen. "Illnesses like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's — the list of people who could benefit from the use of cannabis is very lengthy."

A newer convert is recently elected state representative Mike Colona, a Democrat who represents the city's Tower Grove neighborhood. Colona says he agreed to cosponsor the latest bill because of his experience as a board member for the Saint Louis Effort for AIDS.

"I spoke to several doctors who treat AIDS patients, and it was their opinion, overwhelmingly, that the ability to prescribe marijuana would be very beneficial," Colona says.

"We trust our physicians to prescribe narcotics that are much more powerful than marijuana for their patients — OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin — that kind of thing. If we're trusting doctors to do the right thing with potent drugs like that, I think we can afford the medical community the courtesy to treat this drug the same way."

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