Ill Americans need it

June 02, 2005

Paul Armentano, OPED, The Stuart News, Florida

Imagine there was a nontoxic medication available that provided symptomatic relief for a litany of serious and life-threatening diseases, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis. Imagine that thousands of ill Americans were successfully using this medicine under the supervision of their physician.

Now imagine that the U.S. government was withholding this medication and threatening to incarcerate those patients who benefit from its use. We don't have to imagine such a scenario.

The medicine is marijuana, and for those tens of thousands of Americans who use it therapeutically, Washington's recalcitrance on this issue is reality. 

Fortunately, this attitude may be changing. Thirty-six congressmen, including Florida Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings and Robert Wexler, have sponsored bipartisan legislation to provide for the medical use of cannabis in accordance with the laws of various states. The bill, HR 2087, — 'The States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act' — would reclassify marijuana under federal law to recognize its medical utility and enable physicians to legally prescribe it under controlled circumstances.

Most importantly, this legislation would afford patients legal protection under federal law by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I (criminally prohibited drug) to a Schedule II (prescription-only substance) and permit those states that wish to establish medical marijuana distribution systems the legal authority to do so. Congressional passage of this legislation is long overdue.

Since 1996, voters and legislatures in 11 states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have passed laws exempting patients who use cannabis under a physician's supervision from state criminal penalties. These laws do not legalize the recreational use of marijuana; they merely provide a narrow exemption from state prosecution for defined patients who possess and use medical cannabis under their doctor's supervision. So far, available evidence indicates that these laws are functioning as voters intended and abuses are minimal.

As the success of these statewide campaigns suggests, the American public clearly distinguishes between the medical use and the recreational use of cannabis and a large majority support legalizing medical use for seriously ill patients. A CNN/Time Magazine poll found that 80 percent of Americans support making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe. Similar support has been demonstrated among both Democrat and Republican voters in every state and nationwide poll that has been conducted on the issue since 1996.

According to a recent national survey of U.S. physicians conducted for the American Society of Addiction Medicine, nearly half of all doctors with an opinion on the subject support legalizing marijuana as a medicine. Moreover, more than 80 state and national health-care organizations, including the American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association and The New England Journal of Medicine, support immediate, legal patient access to medical cannabis.

Inexplicably, the federal government has responded by threatening doctors with arrest, prosecuting seriously ill patients and stonewalling research of cannabis' medicinal value. This federal obfuscation must come to an end.

House Bill 2087 is not a mandate from Washington and does not require any state to amend its current laws. It is a states' rights bill that reflects the will of the American people as well as the scientific and medical communities and would allow states to determine for themselves whether cannabis should be legal for medicinal use.

It is a common-sense solution to a complex issue and deserves congressional hearings and support. For those thousands of seriously ill patients who rely on the medicinal use of cannabis, it is unconscionable for Congress to do otherwise.

Armentano is senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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