The Sick May Inhale

May 07, 2006

EDITORIAL, Hartford Courant (RI)

Rhode Island's Department of Health is accepting applications from seriously ill patients who wish to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Opponents of such use will now have an opportunity to see whether the dire predictions of widespread abuse will come to pass.
If the law, which has a sunset clause of June 2007, leads to bad outcomes, it should not be renewed. If the law has flaws, it can be amended. But if the sick are shown to benefit from using the substance, Connecticut lawmakers will no doubt be interested in enacting something similar.

Lest anyone fear that the ranks of marijuana users among the public would skyrocket, it should be noted that the substance is legal in Rhode Island only for those certified by medical experts to need it. A person suffering a debilitating condition - such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or epilepsy- would have to receive permission from doctors and from the state before being allowed to possess a maximum of 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

That person, or the certified caregiver, would also be allowed to grow as many as 12 marijuana plants.

In general, law enforcement officials oppose medicinal use, and health care providers support it as an effective form of relief from pain and suffering. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reiterated its opposition to medical marijuana therapy. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences stands by its 1999 review, which found marijuana to be "moderately well-suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting."

Few on either side want to legalize marijuana for every adult, any more than they endorse making other controlled substances available.

Rhode Island is not a pioneer. Ten other states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, eight of them through statewide referendums. In the Ocean State, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri's veto of the bill was overridden by the legislature.

But all will not be smooth sailing for advocates of medicinal use. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of state laws, the federal government can still prosecute ill people who take the substance for medicinal purposes.

The reality is that more than 90 percent of marijuana-related arrests across the country are made by state officials.

A carefully written federal law would be better than a state-by-state approach, but Congress and the White House are unlikely to support the controversial idea any time soon. Until then, the list of states legalizing the use of small doses of marijuana for sick patients is likely to grow.

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