County's crusades should be stamped out

December 08, 2006

EDITORIAL, North County Times (CA)

Our view: Supervisors' efforts to ban outdoor smoking, medical marijuana infringe on liberty

Friends of liberty in San Diego County suffered one important defeat and one important victory last week. Both struggles involve smoking, and both find the San Diego County supervisors on the wrong side of freedom.

First, the good news: The Board of Supervisors' errant crusade against medical marijuana was dealt another setback Wednesday thanks to an astute judge. While smoking is only one means of taking this medicine approved by referendum and state law, county supervisors opted to stand between the sick and suffering and their ersatz medicine cabinets ---- and trampled liberty along the way.

But the bad news is the supervisors didn't stop there: They voted last week to ban cigarette smoking in the county's 40,000 acres and 300 miles of parks, open spaces and hiking trails. Clutching a carton of flimsy rationales, the supervisors ---- with the welcome exception of North County's Bill Horn ---- chose to dramatically and dangerously expand government's reach at the expense of today's pariahs, tobacco smokers.

Let's acknowledge that smoking, particularly cigarette smoking, is a nasty habit. What's more, it's one of the greatest public health scourges of our time. One careless toss of a cigarette butt can ignite a deadly wildfire; such criminal negligence is blamed, for instance, for the 2001 Alpine fire that burned more than 10,000 acres in East County, destroyed five homes and injured two firefighters and a civilian. Finally, anyone who's spent time picking up trash, especially along beaches too often confused with ashtrays, is all too familiar with the relentless tide of butts left behind after any sunny summer day.

But there are laws against littering already; should we ban eating takeout because some boors don't discard their food wrappers properly? Public education and peer pressure about the wildfire risks of cigarette tossing are already snuffing out that menace; should cigarettes really be forbidden around a campfire? And, crucially, it's still legal to buy cigarettes and smoke them.

Banning the practice in open-air environments such as parks and beaches is better politics than it is rational policy. The same health concerns about second-hand smoke that validate indoor bans are whipped away by the wind and open air; they just don't linger long enough for us to linger upon them.

Of course, the county supervisors are merely following a quickening trend. Del Mar, Solana Beach, El Cajon, National City and Imperial Beach have already banned smoking on beaches and parks, as have the city of San Diego and its Port Commission. Oceanside's Parks and Recreation Commission has recommended a ban on smoking in that city's parks, pier and beaches, though the council has yet to act.

It may be that Lady Liberty doesn't carry a torch today, but a cigarette.

Considering the chronic pain she must be in from a six-year struggle with the Bush administration, Lady Liberty may qualify for a doctor's prescription of medical marijuana. If she resides in San Diego County, however, she would be hard-pressed to get her medicine, thanks to the supervisors' other anti-smoking crusade.

This one is much worse than the just-imposed cigarette ban, however, as the supervisors' stand worsens the pain endured by real suffering San Diego County residents, such as Vista's Craig McClain, a spinal cord injury victim and medical marijuana user.

We hail Superior Court Judge William R. Nevitt's rejection of the county's challenge of California's medical marijuana program, which was authorized by voters in 1996 and enacted by the Legislature in 2003.

The supervisors' primary justification ---- that the state's system for regulating access to medical marijuana is rife for exploitation and encourages illicit drug use ---- is flimsy enough; after all, alcohol is abused far more widely but prohibiting that proved a disaster. But their legal argument ---- that the federal ban on all marijuana use supersedes state law ---- was rightly and roundly refuted by Nevitt.

The supervisors are set to meet Tuesday to decide whether to appeal Nevitt's decision to a higher court; we hope they decline this option. It's bad enough to get in the way of what ought to be the exclusive concern of a patient and a doctor, but the supervisors are grandstanding at taxpayer expense to deny suffering people their medicine.

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