States Should Decide Legality Of Medical Marijuana

June 07, 2005

EDITORIAL, Kingsport Times-News (TN)

The Supreme Court says the federal government has power to prosecute individuals for their use of marijuana for medical purposes even in states that have enacted laws permitting it.  It's too bad a majority of justices let their concern for illegal drug trafficking color their decision-making on this important medical and states' rights issue. Ironically, this comes on the heels of an earlier Supreme Court decision allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana.  The schizophrenic result of these two rulings is that marijuana use for medical purposes is perfectly legal within states that allow it, but simultaneously prosecutable as a violation of federal law.

Since the Supreme Court cannot find its way out of this legal thicket, Congress needs to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes.

The court's decision stems from a case against two Californians who have used locally grown marijuana for medicinal purposes as allowed under a 1996 California law.  Similar laws exist in 10 other states.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that 'given the enforcement difficulties that attend distinguishing between marijuana cultivated locally and marijuana grown elsewhere ...  and concerns about diversion into illicit channels, we have no difficulty concluding that Congress had a rational basis for believing that failure to regulate the intrastate manufacture and possession of marijuana would leave a gaping hole in ( federal drug law ).'

With all due respect to Justice Stevens, the real gaping hole here is one of logic.  If he and Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Scalia cannot see the difference between relatively minor amounts of marijuana grown at home for personal medical use and the wholesale trafficking of the drug for commercial purposes, no amount of legal argumentation would suffice to change their opinion.

A majority of justices are obviously worried that allowing the use of medical marijuana would be the equivalent of the proverbial camel's nose under the tent.  They are concerned that exempting marijuana would make existing federal law harder to enforce.  But many laws are difficult to enforce.

No doubt the existence of medical marijuana would, in a few cases, complicate the job of law enforcement.  Just as obviously, there is the very real possibility that some individuals would use the cover of medical marijuana use to traffic in the drug for illicit commercial benefit.

But much the same case can be made for those who subvert the law to obtain prescription drugs and then resell them for profit.  In this region, for example, the entirely legal drug, OxyContin, has long been the subject of such abuse.

The federal government obviously has an interest in preventing drug trafficking.  But the individual states have rights too.  One of them concerns the ability to regulate health care within state borders.  If the residents of a state have come to the collective decision that the terminally ill should be able to use marijuana to relieve chronic pain under a doctor's supervision, why should the federal government interfere?

Absent a compelling interest, such as thwarting interstate commerce in illicit drugs, why should the federal government care?

Truly sick individuals - many of them chronically or terminally ill - deserve the comfort that any medicine can provide.  Millions of residents in several states have concluded that such a range of medicine should include marijuana.

As a candidate for president in 2000, then-Gov.  George W.  Bush said the federal government should respect state decisions on medical marijuana.  That was - and remains consistent with a traditionalist states' rights view, one that informs and illuminates not only health care issues such as medical marijuana, but a whole raft of other issues as well.

Bush got it right.  Too bad a majority of the Supreme Court sees it otherwise.  Congress should return control of this issue to the states where it rightfully belongs. 

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