Congress should amend drug laws

June 15, 2005

EDITORIAL, Washington Examiner

Last Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows federal prosecutors to go after sick people who smoke marijuana for pain relief is just the latest in an outrageous pattern of criminalizing medicine that has dire, long-term consequences for every American.

As an Examiner editorial noted last month, prosecutors are already targeting pain doctors who prescribe higher doses of legal medications than federal bureaucrats think is wise, even if the doses fall within the parameters of modern medical care. With government agents looking over their shoulders, several top pain physicians told us, many doctors are increasingly reluctant to prescribe enough medication to patients suffering from chronic, intractable pain. Indeed, half of those surveyed in a recent ABC News/USA Today/Stanford University Medical Center poll said that current doses of prescription drugs do not alleviate their pain.

According to Johns Hopkins neurosurgery professor James Campbell, physicians 'simply don't know where the line is between a legal dose and a prescription that will land them in jail.' Some desperate patients have turned to marijuana and other out-of-the-mainstream remedies for relief. They deserve compassion, not incarceration.

Even with the proverbial note from their doctor, patients who live in one of the 10 states that protect medical marijuana users from arrest (Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) are now threatened with criminal charges if they're caught with pot in their possession. Maryland's Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act of 2003 limits the fine to $100, but doesn't protect sick people from being arrested or convicted for lighting up a joint.

The failed Prohibition of the 1920s started with the best of intentions: to protect people from heavy drinking that could ruin their lives. Unfortunately, enforcement of Prohibition laws ruined many lives - and didn't stop people from drinking. Our failed drug prohibition is essentially doing the same thing, with equally dismal results.

Although large majorities in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia support the limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, past efforts to legalize pot under such limited conditions have failed. Anti-drug groups applaud the latest ruling, pointing out that marijuana is a dangerous drug with serious side-effects. True, but the same can also be said about cancer, AIDS, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis or any other painful disease whose sufferers sometimes turn to pot as their last resort. They should have the right to make that decision themselves.

Studies show higher increases in overall marijuana use in states that have passed medical marijuana initiatives. The solution is to go after the estimated 15 million people who smoke marijuana for recreation, not the sick people these laws were intended to help.

Possession of marijuana remains illegal in all 50 states, and thanks to the latest Supreme Court ruling, future efforts to allow it to be used as a medicine will no doubt be found unconstitutional. Only conservative Justices William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas, joined by moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, were willing to put the comfort and welfare of sick people ahead of any other considerations.

Angel McClary Raich, one of the plaintiffs in the case, lives in California - the first state to pass a medical marijuana law in 1996. She suffers from chronic wasting syndrome, scoliosis and an inoperable brain tumor. Such maladies are hard, if not impossible, to fake. As if this array of debilitating illnesses were not enough to endure, Raich now has to fear agents of her own government in the wings, waiting to pounce.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the misguided majority, noted that Congress could amend federal law to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only. That would be the decent and humanitarian thing to do.

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