The Nation Needs a Medical Marijuana Law

June 19, 2005

EDITORIAL, Arizona Daily Star

Despite a ruling by the Supreme Court, Congress can pass a law to allow the sick and dying access to medicinal marijuana.

The Supreme Court's decision does not have to be the last word on the use of medical marijuana by sick and dying patients. Congress can and should take up the cause for marijuana as a remedy for patients who cannot find relief elsewhere.

The court's decision turned on the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and its authority to regulate both legal and illegal uses of the drug, even homegrown quantities recommended by doctors.

In upholding federal authority, the court stepped on laws in at least 11 states that allow such use. The decision was a tricky balance between the rights of states and the ability of the federal government to trump those rights.

In ruling against medical marijuana and states' rights, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, 'Congress' power to regulate purely local activities that are part of an economic 'class of activities' that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce is firmly established.'

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The commerce clause has been an important tool for Congress, especially as it was used in the last century. With it, Congress justified the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was used to outlaw segregation in hotels and restaurants.

Though the decision upheld the Bush administration's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, the ruling had very little to do with sick patients. Yet it was sick patients using marijuana medicinally who brought the case to the Supreme Court. And that issue is left largely unfinished.

The case was brought by two women who relied on marijuana to ease pain and stimulate appetite. They were allowed medicinal use under California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996. In 2002, sheriff's deputies and federal agents came to the home of Diane Monson, one of two women who filed suit.

The local law enforcement agency found her use to be entirely lawful. But the Drug Enforcement Administration seized and then destroyed all her marijuana plants.

Both women were under the care of doctors at the time. And both found relief in the use of marijuana.

In enforcing the act, the DEA attacked state laws and asserted its authority. But it also denied individuals suffering from the pain and wasting of such illneses as cancer, AIDS and muscular dystrophy the ability to relieve symptoms.

The ruling holds special significance in Arizona, where voters in 1996 passed a law allowing doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana for seriously and terminally ill patients. Now, doctors will not be able to prescribe the otherwise illegal drug.

Part of the reasoning in the court's 6-3 decision was the concern that medicinal marijuana would grow beyond that of the use by ill patients. But that worry is not rooted in the reality that very ill patients are not likely to be growing or sharing more than they can use.

Another argument holds that there are plenty of medicines for patients. But the whole point of medicinal marijuana is that it works when other medications have failed. And people in 11 states found that compassion for those in pain allowed the narrow use of pot.

In trumping those laws, the U.S. Supreme Court has left an opening for Congress. A law giving states the authority to decide whether it will allow the relief-giving marijuana is necessary. The law should allow the medical use of marijuana for those who have nowhere else to turn.

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