Starving for medical marijuana
RIP: 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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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