PHOENIX - Heather Torgerson wrote a college paper against the use of medical marijuana. Today, however, she says what once seemed so wrong then is the reason she's survived brain cancer.
She almost had to stop treatment after chemotherapy and radiation left her nauseated and fatigued. When prescriptions and homeopathic remedies didn't reverse her weight loss, she turned to marijuana.
Torgerson said her appetite returned within five minutes.
"I owe my life to it," she said.
As chair of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, Torgerson says many Arizonans would benefit if voters approve Proposition 203, a ballot measure that would legalize the medical use of marijuana.
The proposition would allow a qualifying person with a doctor's recommendation to receive 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from licensed dispensaries. Qualifying conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and chronic pain.
The Arizona Department of Health Services would register and issue identification cards to patients and caregivers to use marijuana or grow up to 12 plants if they live far from a dispensary.
With most of its funding in the form of cash and in-kind contributions from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group, Torgerson's group gathered enough petition signatures to place the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. Minnesota voters also are deciding a ballot measure in November.
Meanwhile, California's Proposition 19 would legalize and regulate marijuana much like tobacco or alcohol.
Arizona voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996, but the measure never took effect because it would have required a doctor's prescription, which is illegal under the federal law. Proposition 203 instead would require a doctor's recommendation, which would have the same weight as a prescription but only on a state level.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that the government wouldn't prosecute marijuana users who comply with state laws.
Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, says the measure will protect the seriously ill.
"Right now those people face a really terrible choice," Myers said. "They either have to continue suffering with a serious, debilitating medical condition or they have to follow their doctor's advice, use marijuana illegally and then live in fear of arrest and prosecution."
Opponents, however, say that the law is less about medicine and more about protecting marijuana users.
"Saying that this is for medicine for sick people is an absolute smokescreen," said Carolyn Short, chairwoman of a group calling itself Keep AZ Drug Free, Proposition 203's chief opposition.
Short said a loophole in the measure is the inclusion of severe and chronic pain as a qualifying condition. In other states with medical marijuana laws, she said, almost all patients use the drug for pain rather than serious illness.
In addition, Short said the allowed 2.5 ounces would equal 200 joints, which she said is more than one person can smoke in two weeks.
"What happens to the excess?" Short said. "I think we know what happens to the excess."
Myers said the 2.5-ounce allowance is necessary since most patients consume marijuana with food, which require more of the drug.
Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the Food and Drug Administration hasn't tested marijuana for safety and efficacy and added that the voters shouldn't be able to circumvent this process.
"There are no other medications that people vote on," he said.
If the measure passes, however, Humble said his department would implement the system in a fair and efficient way.
In the Secretary of State's Office publicity pamphlet, five county sheriffs and 11 county attorneys state their opposition to Proposition 203.
"If this proposition passes, a cottage industry of physician recommendations, caregivers and pot shops will spring up overnight in our communities," their statement says.
Torgerson said the proposition's detractors lack the unique perspective that she and others share.
"I'm not mad at them; they just don't know," she said.