R.I.'s marijuana law

January 03, 2006

EDITORIAL, Providence Journal (RI)

A more humane society would not turn its back on suffering -- and, in some cases, terminally ill -- people who find that marijuana eases their agony. So it is good news, on balance, that the Rhode Island Assembly overturned Governor Carcieri's veto of a medical-marijuana bill, to become the 11th state to allow such use. That should give welcome comfort to some Rhode Islanders suffering from, for instance, the rigors of chemotherapy.

But the law has big problems.

For one thing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 last year, in a case involving medical marijuana, that federal drug law supersedes state law.

The Ocean State bill would let patients, with the recommendation of a doctor or care-giver, possess up to 12 plants, or 2.5 ounces, of marijuana without being subject to local or state prosection. But the Feds could still prosecute.

That may have little effect, since most drug enforcement is on the local level, and federal agents tend to focus on dealers. But somebody transporting marijuana to a patient -- or, especially, to large numbers of patients -- could well be prosecuted criminally by the Feds. Some doctors and caregivers may be very hesitant to recommend marijuana for fear of being involved in a crime.

That raises another big issue: Where would patients get marijuana? There are no legal sources, and no standards for dosage or quality of marijuana, unlike prescription drugs. Users, then, would presumably have to deal with neighborhood criminals to get their marijuana or seeds -- by definition, increasing crime -- and they could not be sure that very harmful or toxic elements were not mixed in. And would a lot of people start growing their own?

It thus made good sense for the legislation to include a sunset provision; it will expire on July 1, 2007, unless lawmakers vote to keep it going. During the interim, the effect of the program -- on law and order, as well as patients -- will be studied.

That said, there are very sick people who would gladly accept the risks of using marijuana, and they should have that freedom.

Perhaps the best effect of the new Rhode Island law would be to encourage a further national discussion of medical marijuana. At some point, the Supreme Court might have to revisit the matter. Society should help sick people obtain safe and effective relief from their misery. If marijuana aids the sick, it should be available to them.



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