The Marijuana Ruling

June 08, 2005

EDITORIAL, Providence Journal

It is inhumane to deny the seriously ill use of marijuana to ease their suffering. That's why 10 states, including Maine and Vermont, have legalized medical marijuana, and Rhode Island is mulling doing so. Unfortunately, though, on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that federal drug-law supersedes state law, so suffering people seeking relief through marijuana may be prosecuted.

A government that would prosecute ill citizens harming no one -- especially when so many pressing problems need attention -- is committing an injustice.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has ruled that if state drug laws superseded federal law, efforts to control drugs would become ineffective. And John Waters, director of the National Drug Control Policy, says that marijuana use has yet to be proven safe or effective.

The ruling is another blow to our federal system -- and the rights of states to establish criminal law through legislators chosen by local voters. 'The states' core police powers,' wrote dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 'have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.' She was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that medical-marijuana laws make it hard for the federal government to control production and use of the plant; he cited the federal authority to regulate interstate commerce. But, as Justice Thomas noted, the seriously ill women who brought the case use marijuana that they have grown: Never having crossed state lines, it does not affect the national marijuana market.

'If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause,' warned Mr. Thomas, 'then it can regulate virtually anything -- and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.'

Among our system's great virtues is the states' power to act as 'laboratories': testing whether various approaches to social policy work. For example, some states can see whether medical-marijuana laws pose a genuine threat to public health, while other states can hold firm against use of the plant. The Supreme Court's ruling erodes our Founders' system.

Fortunately for users of medical marijuana, federal prosecution of marijuana cases is rare. Usually, the state and local police hold sway -- and they follow state law. Thus, in practice, state medical-marijuana laws can still protect sick people who wish to relieve pain with marijuana -- as long as the Feds don't get involved.

No sick person should be treated as a criminal for attempting to reduce suffering.

Although it seems unlikely at the the moment, we urge Congress to enact a national law letting doctors prescribe marijuana.

And while we're at it, we also urge reappraisal of the endlessly expensive, in economic and social terms, 'war on drugs.'

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