Still a Wisp Of Hope

June 07, 2005

EDITORIAL, The Record (NJ)

The U.S.  Supreme Court ruling this week that federal anti-drug laws trump state initiatives on medical marijuana will disappoint many who support allowing the drug for relief of physical suffering. But the court's decision is not the end of the story.

Congress must respond to the court ruling with new legislation.  It must protect from prosecution patients who use marijuana to relieve pain, nausea, spasms and other disease symptoms.

New Jersey lawmakers should in the meantime push ahead with a bill that would allow the medical use of marijuana, as 11 other states already do.

The court's vote, in a California case, upheld the power of the federal government to prosecute the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes, regardless of the state's law allowing it.

The 6-3 decision hinged on justices' concerns about preserving federal authority over the states, specifically in commerce.  That is a reasonable concern.

Illustrating that the ruling was about federal versus states' rights more than the desirability of medical marijuana use, the more liberal justices joined in the majority.  And two of the most conservative were in the minority supporting California patients' rights to use the drug.

The court decision doesn't invalidate state laws allowing medical use of marijuana.  But it means that patients in those states must worry about a knock on the door from a federal agent.

And although there's still a possibility that the Supreme Court might ultimately rule in favor of the California patients on other constitutional issues now before a lower court, no one should pin any hopes on that.

The real solution is federal action to allow the drug for legitimate medical purposes.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1999 that there are 'limited circumstances in which we recommend marijuana for medical uses.'

The academy also called for more study of the issue, as has the American Medical Association.  That makes sense.  But pending those studies, patients should not be denied the physical relief that many seem to get from marijuana.

Don't expect anything positive on that score from President Bush, however.  His drug-control director this week dismissed state medical-marijuana initiatives as 'pro-drug politics' being promoted 'under the guise of medicine.'

There's more hope in Congress, where medical marijuana is not a clearly partisan issue.

Last year, 19 House Republicans were among those who voted to bar spending on federal law enforcement against patients using marijuana for medical purposes.  That proposal failed, but it is due to come before the House again next week.

Even better, though less likely, would be for Congress to pass a pending bill that outright decriminalizes marijuana for medical use.

In the meantime, New Jersey legislators should pass a medical-marijuana proposal now before the state Senate.

Passing such a state law would offer relief to severely ill patients.  And it would add to the pressure on federal lawmakers to follow suit. 

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