COTTLEVILLE — Cottleville Mayor Don Yarber is on a mission to put medical marijuana on the state ballot.
"This has to be done almost undercover, but the support is there," said 70-year-old Yarber. "I think politicians would be surprised at the number of people that would approve medical marijuana use."
The Cottleville Board of Aldermen in July unanimously adopted a resolution Yarber drafted supporting legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
"The feedback was all positive," Yarber said. "I tried to take what I consider a daring step by bringing the topic up and getting people talking about it."
Yarber said he is working with organizations and talking with people in Jefferson City, trying to pressure legislators to put a medical marijuana referendum on the Missouri ballot.
The Cottleville resolution supported last year's Missouri House Bill 277, which called for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Yarber called marijuana a "compassionate drug" that had "proven medical benefits" for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, relieving symptoms of nausea and appetite loss.
His wife, Sylvia Yarber, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. Doctors removed a 1-centimeter malignant tumor from her right breast.
"Once you bring the word 'cancer' into your life, you are filled with doubt, concerned about your loved one, wondering if she will live," Don Yarber said.
Sylvia Yarber, 66, underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatment and six months of biweekly chemotherapy. Each chemo treatment left her with a metallic taste in her mouth that lingered for several days, she said.
"It was a weird feeling, like chewing on a gum wrapper," she said. "Even fruit had a metallic taste. Food tasted bad, so I didn't eat right. I was weak and throwing up."
Don Yarber said his wife would become "violently ill" on their way home from treatments at Christian Hospital Northeast in St. Louis. She was losing weight.
Yarber said a friend suggested his wife try marijuana. The friend's brother had struggled through chemotherapy until he tried marijuana, which relieved his nausea and restored his appetite. The Yarbers decided to give it a try.
"There was no big turning point," Don Yarber said. "It was suggested and I followed through. I had the opportunity to help someone I loved. I was willing to gamble with that. So was she."
Yarber said he was "able to secure two joints," but would not say how or where he obtained them. His wife smoked one before her chemo treatment, then took two puffs in the car immediately after treatment, he said.
"The first time she did, she said, 'Let's go eat,'" Yarber said. "I said, 'You got to be kidding me. You want to eat?' She said, 'Yes, I'm hungry.' We went to Denny's and she ate a big breakfast."
Sylvia Yarber continued smoking marijuana before and after the rest of her treatments.
"Medical marijuana took that metal taste away," she said. "It made me feel a lot better. It lifted my mood. I was amazed at the results."
Sylvia Yarber said she stopped smoking marijuana as soon as her chemotherapy ended. She said she has not smoked it since. She has been cancer-free for 16 years.
Don Yarber said people who have not personally experienced cancer might have a difficult time relating to the medical marijuana debate.
"I know there is someone out there now going through what my wife went through," he said. "I hope if they go out and try to do what I did for my loved one, they don't get arrested and become a criminal."
A St. Charles County man is facing criminal charges for allegedly growing marijuana for what he claims was medical use. Kenneth Wells, 56, is tentatively scheduled for trial Jan. 26. Wells said marijuana reduced seizures, pain and other symptoms he has suffered since having a stroke in 1983.
Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states. In at least five states, the push toward legalization received a boost from the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's largest marijuana policy reform organization. Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization sent Don Yarber a signed Christmas card that he displayed on his desk last month.
Bruce Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project's director of communications, said the organization followed the progress of House Bill 277 last year, but it is not very active in the Missouri Legislature.
"We haven't had the impression that there is the critical mass necessary for us to launch an all-out campaign," Mirken said. "Ultimately, this is a matter that should be decided by citizens of Missouri. If there is no local base of support, nothing we do will help very much."
Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, said the issue has not even been "on the radar screen" in Jefferson City. Davis said she opposes legalizing medical marijuana, calling it a "recreational drug" that serves as a gateway to harder drugs.
"I'm sure there are people who believe there is medicinal value from all illegal drugs," Davis said. "If you asked every alcoholic if he thought there was medicinal value in alcohol, he would say yes. It elevates his mood, makes him feel better."