States' rights a solution to pot debate

September 28, 2003

Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle

U.S. drug czar John P. Walters likes to dismiss the medical-marijuana movement as a cynical effort by the pro-drug-use crowd to hide behind sick people in order to legalize all marijuana use and the use of other drugs. But what Walters doesn't see is how his actions are helping the people he opposes. By enforcing federal marijuana laws to the detriment of sick people, Walters has pushed some skittish pols to take a principled stand which they probably would have preferred to avoid. Last week, the Hinchey-Rohrabacher bill to bar the Department of Justice from challenging medical-marijuana laws in the states that have sanctioned medical-marijuana use (there are 10 states, including California) -- lost. Still, the vote in the House was 273 to 152. That's progress from a 311-94 split in 1998. Walters isn't losing support because he's right. Yes, some medical-marijuana proponents are drug devotees. Witness Ed Rosenthal -- the Bay Area activist who received a one-day sentence for growing medical marijuana, even as poor men growing the same plants elsewhere often are sentenced to long, hard time. Rosenthal was a columnist for High Times and Cannabis Culture. Walters is losing support because, apart from Rosenthal, federal raids confiscated the pot stocks of very sick people who consider marijuana to be a benign medicine. Members of the raided Santa Cruz Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana have found marijuana helps them with epilepsy, post-polio syndrome and HIV. The group isn't a club for party animals; in the seven months after the September 2002 the raid, at least 12 members died. Those who lived had less marijuana available to relieve their pain. Federal law should be changed: It makes no sense for marijuana to be a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substance Act, which keeps doctors from recommending what they believe to be the right drugs. (I realize many doctors never would prescribe marijuana, but even they must agree that professionals of good will can have a different perspective on many drugs.) To counter the federal act, medical-marijuana proponents have concentrated on the states. The courts have been clear about the federal law's power to trump state law. Hinchey-Rohrabacher was a way to fiddle with federal law in those states which have passed their own medical marijuana laws, rather than attempt to legalize it nationwide. States' rights provide a good compromise. Let states decide what they want to do, then states on both sides of the issue can learn from the experience of others. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher vote was instructive. Republicans -- like author Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach -- are supposed to believe in states' rights. This time, however, most suddenly decided a centralized D.C.- based government knows best. Democrats usually want Washington to tell locals how to live -- as in, Alaskans shouldn't get to choose to drill for more oil where they live. But, suddenly, many Democrats were enamored of states' rights. OK, so neither party gets points for principled consistency. At least the House is moving in the right direction. But if Walters and the feds choose to prosecute sick, needy people, and to go after the licenses of doctors who care for them, there could be a backlash. In fact, there should be. E-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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