Marijuana by prescription only

February 27, 2004

EDITORIAL, Chicago Tribune

Some lawmakers would rather juggle nitroglycerin than debate an issue as volatile as the medical use of marijuana. But a consensus seems to be slowly developing that marijuana should be treated like a prescription sedative: dangerous but still useful to the seriously ill. The medicinal marijuana debate has moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American politics in recent years. Since California voters in 1996 removed criminal penalties for qualifying patients who use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, seven other states have passed similar laws. Some 30 states have laws on their books that recognize in some way the medicinal value of marijuana, disputing the Office of Drug Control Policy, the nation's 'drug czar,' which has opposed such recognition.

The result, as the issue makes its way through the laboratory of the states, has been an oddly unsettled legal balancing act. States are not legally required to enforce federal laws and federal agents have been too preoccupied with serious drug offenders to concern themselves much with medicinal marijuana patients.

Now the debate has reached the chambers of Springfield in bills introduced by Democratic Sen. Carol Ronen of Chicago and Republican Rep. Angelo 'Skip' Saviano of River Grove.

Under these measures, patients diagnosed with a debilitating illness could be issued a state registration card that would permit them to legally possess no more than six plants and one ounce of cannabis.

Proponents cite scientific evidence that marijuana can offer relief from pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with HIV, glaucoma, chemotherapy and some other serious maladies. Opponents argue that other drugs work better than marijuana at treating such symptoms without the accompanying euphoric 'high.'

That may be true, according to a March 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. But the study went on to conclude that, although some medications are more effective than marijuana, 'they are not equally effective in all patients.' Different people respond differently to the same treatments, which is why treatment decisions are better made in doctors' offices than in police stations.

Maryland legislators struck a compromise last year after heated debate. They reduced criminal penalties to no more than $100 for those who can convince a judge that they use marijuana to relieve symptoms of a chronic or life-threatening illness. The legislature stopped short of treating marijuana like a prescription medicine, but it took a major step toward eliminating a widely perceived injustice.

On this, the public appears to be way ahead of the legislators. A 1998 poll by the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University found 67 percent of Illinois residents believe 'doctors should be allowed to prescribe small amounts of marijuana for patients.' Significantly, the poll also found that the respondents thought the support for medical marijuana would be much lower than it actually was.

Such differences between perceptions and reality may account for the cold feet many legislators feel about even mentioning the words 'medical' and 'marijuana' together out loud. Americans have taken a nuanced approach, according to polls. Most support legalizing marijuana for the ill, but not for other use. With that, the public shows admirable thoughtfulness on this issue. So should legislators.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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