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Medical marijuana patients, caregivers and supporters from around the state spent Sunday in Helena asking questions and listening to panel discussions about the medicinal plant that’s generated significant interest since voter approval in 2004.

They’ll continue today for the second day of the Montana Medical Growers Association annual meeting and symposium at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel. The event is free and open to the public and runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We are serious about this as an industry; we need to be serious about participation as individuals,” said Executive Director Jim Gingery. “We want the black market to go away because we want to be able to grow it in Montana.”

Sessions were held throughout the first day on the medical and scientific benefits, legal considerations and delivery methods. Topics today will include agriculture, business operations and communications.

At the end of Gingery’s opening comments, he set out to dispel rumors about medical marijuana.

There are rumors that caregivers are treating hundreds of patients, but the facts are that only 2 percent have over 41 patients; 24 percent have four to 40 patients; and 73 percent have three patients or fewer, a slide Gingery presented to the crowd read. There’s a rumor that school-aged children are getting medical cards at record number, but the fact is there are 44 card holders 18 or younger in Montana.

Education is key, said Tayln Lang, chapter director of MMGA Missoula.

“I’d never want to go into combat without the proper gear and knowing what I’m up against,” Lang said. “This will help people get what they need in our industry and outside our industry.”

Lang added that professionals at the symposium with extensive credentials would help educate attendees. Professionals like Chris Christensen, a physician from Victor who prescribes marijuana to patients when necessary, or Noel Palmer, who has his doctorate in chemistry and works as a scientist for Montana Botanical Analysis.

The group invited Irvin Rosenfeld, a federal cannabis patient and Florida stockbroker, to be the event’s keynote speaker.

When he was 10, Rosenfeld was diagnosed with a serious, rare bone disorder that causes tumors to form on long bones. After undergoing multiple surgeries and taking a laundry list of prescribed pain medications for years, he reluctantly tried marijuana in college and soon realized the relief it gave him.

“If a doctor could give me diazepam, Valium, quaaludes … they should be able to prescribe me medical marijuana,” he said.

It was a long battle — 10 years — but the federal government now monthly provides him a tin of 300 federally grown and rolled marijuana cigarettes.

Rosenfeld said he came to the event to tell his story and offer his support and knowledge to help continue to improve on what was started here six years ago.

Attending the symposium was Helena resident Holly Hacker, who is disabled, but does what she can to give back to the community by volunteering with the Last Chance Community Pow Wow and the Holter Museum.

She’s also a medical marijuana patent due to the degenerative disc and joint disease she suffers from; however she became disabled from a severe allergy developed, she believes, from her previous place of employment.

“It’s been an ugly roller coaster to get my health stabilized,” she said.

Hacker is cheerful and friendly, but under her clothes are sores and lesions that take months, sometimes years, to heal. The steroids help with the insatiable urge to frantically itch her skin; but she uses marijuana to treat the  chronic pain that the disc disease causes in her lower back.

She said there is an incredible group of people in Montana who support the patients using the product, the caregivers providing it and the doctors comfortable prescribing it. These people, she said, want the law to succeed.

“We, like any new business, have growing pains,” Hacker said. “Many of the problems will self-correct.”

Christensen, who has been practicing family medicine for 35 years, said it’s a precarious time for caregivers and patients and particularly doctors.

“I got into this because I was forced to take responsibility of helping my patients with chronic pain,” he said. “The statement that chronic pain is overstated is nothing more than a reflection of the fact that we are still in denial.”

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Christensen said some doctors also simply believe there are more risks than benefits.

“There is a part of the population that doesn’t believe there’s any medical benefit,” he said. “These doctors are convinced that marijuana is more detrimental than beneficial.”

Christensen disagrees and has patients who drive hours from all corners of the state to receive his care.

Palmer said there is scientific proof that marijuana works but added that there is still a lot to learn.

Valerie Hellermann, of Helena, is convinced that marijuana helped with her son’s ADD.

“After years of struggling with ADD and terrible drugs, he suddenly had a semester of getting A’s,” she said.

It was because he was smoking marijuana, Hellermann said, adding that her son is now senior in college studying astrobiology.

“He kept saying mom, ‘I am able to focus (after smoking marijuana),’” she said. “We should explore the use for ADD and ADHD because kids come down and crash from Ritalin horribly.”

Lang said that people have all kinds of stories about how medical marijuana has helped them, but he recognizes that not all people agree with its use.

“The single largest factor if you are for or against it is whether you know somebody that’s a user,” he said.

Lang added that the symposium is important to provide education so minds and hearts can be changed when needed.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@helenair.com

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