Congress should exempt medicinal pot

June 07, 2005

EDITORIAL, Herald News (NJ)

Desperately ill people should have access to marijuana for medicinal purposes, especially in cases where traditional treatments have failed to ease their pain.

But on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that growing and using illegal drugs falls under the rubric of the Constitution's commerce clause and thus trumps individual states' rights.

In other words, even though 11 states have passed laws making medicinal pot legal - and New Jersey has such a bill pending in the Senate - sick people who smoke it in those 11 states can be prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Still, the Supreme Court did the right thing. Weakening the commerce clause could have a disastrous effect on many of the protections Americans take for granted.

This clause gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, a broad concept the federal government uses to fight everything from racial discrimination to pollution to child labor. The commerce clause also provides the basis for making New Deal protections such as welfare and Social Security apply to every state.

The 6-3 Supreme Court vote revealed the federal vs. states' rights dynamic at play in the case. The court's more liberal justices argued for federal regulation of homegrown marijuana under the commerce clause, while the more conservative justices said each state should decide its own policy. In this case, the state at issue was California, which in 1996 overwhelmingly passed a referendum granting residents the right to grow and use pot for medicinal purposes.

The two California women, Angel Raich and Diane Monson, who brought the case after Monson's home was raided by federal agents, say smoking pot is the only thing that keeps them functioning.

They and others who suffer from debilitating illnesses shouldn't have to worry about federal agents knocking on their door.

Fortunately, the Drug Enforcement Administration has said it has no intention of pursuing people like Raich and Monson. Most of the 20 or so federal prosecutions of medicinal-marijuana users since 1996 have involved people who were growing 1,000 or more plants.

Next week, an amendment to an appropriations bill that would stop government raids on medicinal-marijuana users will go before the House. Last year, 19 House Republicans voted for such a measure - showing there is support from both sides of the aisle - but it didn't pass. This year, it should.

Congress also should take more decisive action to decriminalize this frail population of drug users by exempting medicinal marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

The Food and Drug Administration should cede to scientific consensus and allow studies that could lead to approving pot as a prescription drug, as other countries have done. Last April, for instance, Canada approved an oral cannabis spray for multiple sclerosis patients.

Surveys have shown that most Americans favor making medicinal marijuana legal - including all seven Republican candidates in New Jersey's gubernatorial primary, who agreed on little else. Most Americans see a difference between growing small amounts of marijuana to treat chronic medical conditions and trafficking in narcotics to make a profit.

Congress and the FDA should, too. And New Jersey should help put pressure on the federal government by joining the states, red as well as blue, that have passed laws approving the use of medicinal marijuana.



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