Let States Decide
June 06, 2005
EDITORIAL, Houston ChronicleThe U.S. Supreme Court Monday ruled 6-3 that sick people who use small amounts of physician-prescribed marijuana to alleviate pain and nausea are subject to federal prosecution. A day later, not much seemed to have changed.
Attorneys general in some of the 10 states that allow marijuana for limited medical purposes issued statements that the ruling would not result in a crackdown on users. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has not indicated whether he will continue the hard-line policy on marijuana use of his predecessor, John Ashcroft.
At least one Justice Department official went out of his way to reassure patients that they had little to fear from federal agents.
'We have never targeted the sick and the dying, but rather criminals engaged in drug trafficking,' Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Bill Grant said. That doesn't explain why the DEA participated in a California drug raid four years ago against an accountant with degenerative spinal disease who had grown a few pot plants in her garden for personal use.
That California case led to this week's Supreme Court ruling that scrambled the court's ideological lineup. While liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg voted with the majority, finding that the federal government has the power to regulate the growth and use of pot, conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas in the dissenting opinion.
Thomas commented that if Congress could regulate a product that was never bought or sold or taken across state lines, it could regulate anything. In the dissent, Justice O'Connor defended the right 'that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.'
Even the majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens seemed almost apologetic. It conceded the therapeutic value of marijuana and the possibility that the medical needs of a suffering patient might outweigh the government's interest in outlawing its use by the general population, though that was not an issue in the ruling. In the opinion Stevens actually encouraged advocates of medicinal marijuana to lobby Congress to change the law to allow an exemption.
Unfortunately, few lawmakers are willing to vote for a bill that has been characterized by opponents as undermining the war on drugs. The Medical Marijuana Act, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Surfside, has been filed each session for the last 10 years, and never gets out of committee.
As Paul told the Associated Press, 'I think support is strong, but people are still frightened a little bit by the politics of it.' He also observed that if Congress held a secret vote, 80 percent of his colleagues would back the law. Through a spokesman, Paul indicated his objection to the Supreme Court ruling had more to do with the violation of states' right to regulate their internal affairs and less to do with the value of marijuana as a medical therapy.
The court majority was wrong to assert federal primacy over a health care matter that is properly within the purview of state government, but it did get one thing right. Congress is the forum where advocates of medicinal marijuana should now press their case to allow suffering people access to a nonaddictive pain reliever they can grow in their own back yard.