Medicinal marijuana laws far too hazy

September 11, 2007

EDITORIAL, Daily Illini

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin came out in favor of changing federal law to allow physicians to prescribe medicinal marijuana to their patients. While Durbin reiterated that this is not exactly high on his priority list and that he has no specific plans to bring it up in Washington, one wonders how much the federal government needs to be involved in the first place.

For some time now, states have been fighting with the feds over whether there are any medical benefits to marijuana at all, never mind who is responsible for enforcing one law or another.

Currently, 12 states allow doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients. Generally, most of these cases involve illnesses with debilitating symptoms like AIDS and multiple sclerosis. However, despite this being legal on a state level, any medical marijuana user with a valid prescription is still subject to prosecution under federal statutes by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the United States Attorney General.

In Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the United States Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that the federal government is empowered to prosecute medical marijuana users regardless of any state law because the drug trade is subject to the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution.

But in her dissent, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Conner trumpeted the virtue of state experimentation within the bounds of federalism: "This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently."

In fact, Illinois decriminalized medical marijuana in 1978, not long after the much criticized "War on Drugs" was launched by President Nixon. But for one reason or another, the Illinois Public Health department has sat on the matter, refusing to rule on whether to give doctors the authorization to prescribe it.

But in other states like California, citizens are caught in the middle of a legal tug of war between state police and federal enforcement agents who quite literally decide what laws they want to enforce at any given time.

The issue's stagnation in Congress begs for states to take the lead in what is increasingly becoming a health care problem, not just a drug problem. What is for sure is that neither states nor federal officials nor American citizens benefit from the status quo of legal purgatory that this country finds itself in regarding marijuana use.

Ironically, this debate boils down to whether or not states should experiment with new things, be it medicinal marijuana or a better approach to federalism.

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