Let's legalize marijuana for medical purposes (COLUMN)

March 03, 2004

Sylvester Brown Jr., St. Louis Post Dispatch

Larry McKeon, an Illinois representative, is urging lawmakers to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. McKeon has the virus that causes AIDS. He's joined other legislators in sponsoring a bill designed to help patients afflicted with debilitating illnesses cope with their pain. The bill, HB4868, calls for the issuance of state registration cards to those diagnosed with maladies such as AIDS, glaucoma and cancer. The card allows for the legal possession of up to six cannabis plants and one ounce of marijuana.

The subject of legalizing pot for medicinal purposes may be a hot potato for politicians, but this bill seems like a no-brainer. At least 30 states have laws recognizing the medicinal value of marijuana. Nine states, with laws similar to McKeon's bill, allow the medical use of marijuana with a doctor's authorization and state-issued ID card.

I thought marijuana would be legal by now. Twenty-five years ago, the stuff was everywhere. People were rarely arrested for small quantities. That started after President Ronald Reagan's 'war' on drugs.

Marijuana seemed acceptable in the late 1970s and early '80s. Maybe that explains the popularity of 'Saturday Night Fever,' Cheech & Chong, platform shoes, polyester suits, KC & the Sunshine Band and ... (gulp) ... disco. 

I'm no politician, so it's probably safe to admit that I (unlike Clinton) inhaled. But I soon realized I could do better things with my brain and my time than count pulp pods in an orange. Then there was that forgetfulness that came with smoking grass.
My fellow potheads and I had long, intellectual conversations, but I'll be darned if I can recall what they were about. I vaguely remember telling some nerdy, four-eyed kid my idea of creating personal computers for every home. I think his first name was Bill.

We were so goofy. Most of us smoked marijuana because it was hip and cool. We had no idea the stuff could actually help people. But scientists have proved that marijuana offers relief from pain and nausea related to a number of maladies. After that discovery, one would think it would have been decriminalized by now.

Opponents argue there's no need to legalize marijuana because legal drugs exist for suffering patients. Of course, I imagine this is mainly the argument of pharmaceutical giants. The idea of medicine grown by the patient is preposterous to those guys. 'Real medicine' is processed, marketed with a catchy jingle and reaps huge profits.

A 1999 study conducted by the National Sciences Institute of Medicine acknowledged other drugs work more effectively than marijuana. But Bruce Mirken, the spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobbying organization, said those drugs aren't for all patients.

'Some drugs are pretty effective, but they're also pretty nasty,' Mirken told me.

'Many of these people are dealing with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. A pill won't do them any good.'

The study also stressed that patients respond differently to different drugs. The bill McKeon co-sponsored makes sense because it allows doctors to decide if a patient should use marijuana or prescription drugs.

Those against decriminalizing cannabis fear others may benefit from the patient's legal right to puff. Therefore agonized individuals must break the law for pain relief. Mirken believes that in itself is a crime.

'No one should be subjected to arrest or possible jail time for simply trying to relieve the suffering caused by cancer.'

According to a 1998 Northern Illinois University poll, 67 percent of the respondents favored patients being prescribed small amounts of marijuana by their doctors. Mirken said other national polls show the majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal usage.

McKeon's bill seems to offer a common-sense approach to a complicated problem. At best, its passage will offer legal relief for millions of chronically ill people. At worst, the return of disco.

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