River Falls voters may see a referendum question about medical marijuana on the ballot when they step into the election booth in November.

City Council Member Bob Hughes filed with the city clerk's office Wednesday, Aug. 25, a petition for direct legislation bearing 800-plus signatures.

The question petitioners want added to the ballot: "Should the Wisconsin Legislature enact legislation allowing residents with debilitating medical conditions to acquire and possess marijuana for medical purposes if supported by their physician?"

City Clerk Lu Ann Hecht confirmed that Hughes had submitted the petition a few days before the deadline and had the required number of signatures. She has forwarded the petition to the city attorney for interpretation.

He'll determine if it warrants a direct-legislation referendum or an advisory referendum. After that is determined, the City Council will decide whether to add the question to the ballot.

Hecht was unsure what specific action a direct-legislation referendum would motivate. The city attorney was not available to comment just before press time.

Hughes said he began gathering signatures after, "Some community members contacted me about it and asked if I was willing to help."

He said many people believe that somebody with a debilitating medical condition should have access to whatever a doctor thinks would help. He said the petition and referendum question advises state legislators to take action, to pass a law.

It shows them what the people want and represents another step in the process to make medical marijuana legal in Wisconsin.

Hughes said his interest grew after he went with a group of constituents to Madison to lobby for the law during the last legislative cycle. He met activists Gary Storck and Jacki Rickert and says they are nice, good people.

He said, "This is about people with serious, serious medical conditions," adding that even when a doctor advises it, those using marijuana are treated like criminals. "When you look into those people's eyes, the last thing I would want to do is treat them like criminals."

Hughes said he did not encounter any adverse reactions as he made the rounds in River Falls seeking signatures for the petition. He said about 70% of the people who opened their door supported the effort.

He sees the referendum question as very important and emphasized, "Voters are the most important poll we can take."

Marijuana matters

Storck lives on the east side of Madison, has pushed for legalization of medical marijuana for 40 years, and thinks the referendum question is an important tool that will help educate voters and promote understanding of the issues.

"There's so many reasons we need to look at it," he said, adding about those who oppose the law: "Basically they're going against something very natural."

Storck started the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and directs the "Is My Medicine Legal Yet?" movement. He said 14 states have legalized medical marijuana, which means about 30% of the U.S. population now approves of using marijuana for medicinal purposes.

He said a look at Senate Bill 368 or Assembly Bill 554 shows for what diseases and conditions the marijuana could be used: Cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Crohn's, hepatitis C, Alzheimer's, amytrophic lateral sclerosis, nail patella syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos and post traumatic stress. The list also includes chronic or debilitating diseases that cause wasting or severe pain, nausea, seizures or spasms.

Storck said he's seen and heard how it helps people reduce their pain, regain an appetite and generally improve.

"I've suffered from ill health all my life," Storck said, adding that he first smoked marijuana in the 1970s and noticed it relieved the pressure from glaucoma that was blinding him. "He (doctor) found my pressures were normal instead of highly elevated."

Storck became an activist not long after that and in the course of his work, met Jacki Rickert, after whom many medical marijuana bills are named. She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos disease, and Storck says she's in pain every waking moment.

"For her it's been a godsend," he said about medical cannabis.

Storck says the bill was introduced during Wisconsin's last legislative session but died in committee. He agrees that the referendum question is another way to show legislators that the people want the bill passed into law.

He said, "Sponsors of the bill urged us to keep the momentum going and put advisory referendums on local ballots."

Their efforts brought success in Dane County. Stork said the question will go on the ballot in Dane, the state's second largest county. He thinks some board members were against it but changed their minds after hearing testimony.

He said all ages of people including seniors are finding marijuana helpful for their conditions. Many say it is infinitely better than the harsh drugs doctors prescribe that often have foul side effects.

Storck also says more people are experimenting with how marijuana may help other conditions not yet on the accepted list, such as autism and arthritis.