Medical pot laws don't blow smoke

January 10, 2007

BILL ZIMMERMAN and DAVE FRATELLO, Guest Columnists, Daily News (LA)

TEN years ago, California voters were first in the nation to legalize the medical use of marijuana. We managed the Proposition 215 campaign, and later had similar success in six other states.

When Proposition 215 appeared on the California ballot, political leaders and pundits of all stripes urged voters to oppose it. They made some dramatic predictions about what would happen if it passed. Let's go back and see how right, or wrong, they were.

President Bill Clinton's drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, was blunt: Legal acceptance of the medical use of marijuana would "cause drug abuse to increase among our children."

McCaffrey was wrong. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, done in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared teen marijuana use in 1995 to 2003. It found an 11 percent decrease nationally in ninth-graders' frequent marijuana use (defined as use during the previous 30 days). But the decrease among California ninth-graders was a staggering 47 percent.

Nationally, frequent marijuana use by 11th-graders dropped by 12 percent, but in California the drop was twice as steep (24 percent). Similarly, the number of California teens experimenting with marijuana plummeted faster than the national average.

California's then-Attorney General, Dan Lungren, a Republican, claimed that Proposition 215 was "so loosely written ... so poorly defined, that in fact it would apply in situations far beyond" medical use. Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, a fellow Republican who chaired the campaign against Proposition 215, said the measure "wouldn't just legalize marijuana for medical use - it would legalize marijuana, period."

Lungren and Gates were wrong. In California, marijuana arrests have hovered around 60,000 per year, unaffected by Proposition 215. Nationally, according to the Government Accountability Office, most law enforcement agencies in states with medical-marijuana laws said those laws "had not greatly affected their law enforcement activities."

Political pundit Robert Novak claimed medical marijuana was "the wedge in the door for legalizing marijuana," calling Proposition 215 "just the beginning" of a legalization effort by George Soros and other donors supporting the initiative.

Novak was wrong. Ten years later, Soros has not tried to legalize marijuana, and voters have rejected the few proposals to do so that were sponsored by others.

In addition to the seven states in which we helped pass medical-marijuana ballot initiatives, four others also have passed such laws. These 11 states, with over 70 million residents, have found ways to regulate medical marijuana - a feat opponents thought impossible.

Several states allow patients who have a doctor's approval to register with confidential databases and receive credentials recognized by law enforcement. They are not arrested if they grow or use the limited amounts of marijuana specified by law. Cops, prosecutors and judges have found that it isn't as hard as they had feared to tell the difference between a weekend smoker and a medical patient with a doctor's approval.

Medical-marijuana ballot measures were necessary because politics and fear had kept marijuana out of the medical mainstream for decades. Now, statistics show that thousands of doctors are recommending marijuana to patients in the states that allow it. New studies of whole marijuana and its unique chemicals are showing a wide range of benefits beyond pain relief and reduction of nausea, the two most common medical uses. Recent research shows that medical marijuana significantly reduces symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, and marijuana's key ingredient, THC, actually slows the progress of Alzheimer's disease more effectively than any other known alternative.

National polls show that public support for the medical use of marijuana is in the range of 70 percent to 80 percent. Yet the federal government has maintained a policy of opposition, harassment and intimidation.

There is much the new Congress can and should do to allow states and patients greater freedom to experiment with medical marijuana. A starting point would be congressional hearings that fairly present the new scientific and medical facts.

Only a relaxation of federal obstacles can encourage researchers, physicians and more state legislatures to develop policies that can bring the benefits of this much-misunderstood medicine to all Americans.

Bill Zimmerman and Dave Fratello work for the political consulting firm Zimmerman & Markman in Santa Monica (

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