Ex-aide goes to bat for medical marijuana (COLUMN)

April 07, 2004

Sheryl McCarthy , Newsday

In December 1994, Joycelyn Elders, the U.S. surgeon general, was unceremoniously booted out of her job by President Bill Clinton. The pediatrician and former director of the Arkansas health department had taken controversial stands on a number of issues.

She urged anti-abortion groups to 'get over their love affair with the fetus and start supporting the children.'

She said it was impossible to teach teenagers how to protect themselves from AIDS 'without telling them about sex.'

She said girls who were lesbians should be allowed to join the Girl Scouts because 'none of us is good enough, or knows enough, to make decisions about other people's sexual preferences.'

She suggested that the government study the feasibility of legalizing drugs.

But the last straw came when she suggested that sex- education courses should probably include a discussion of masturbation.

In a heartbeat, Elders was out the door and back in Arkansas - too much of a perceived political embarrassment for the Clinton administration.

I admired her commitment to saying what she believed to be the truth, even if it was politically unpopular. If you can't get a straight answer from the nation's top doctor, then whom can you trust? But Elders paid the price for it.

I'm pleased to report that she's still at it, though. Now 70, Elders, who spends a lot of her time giving speeches, is working with the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, to get states to adopt medical marijuana laws. These laws, which are in effect in eight states and are being considered in five others, including New York, would legalize using marijuana to treat the symptoms of diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.

Writing last month in The Providence Journal, Elders called on the Rhode Island legislature to approve such a bill, saying it was 'simply wrong for the sick and suffering to be casualties in the war on drugs.'

Nearly 700,000 arrests in 2002 were on marijuana charges, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 88 percent of them for simple possession. Elders views the drug laws as 'a war on our young people' and says that, while we let police lecture students about drugs, we haven't taught young people the real disadvantages of drug use.

'We've been very silent on that issue, except to pick them up and put them in jail,' she told me. 'We just commit them forever to a terrible handicap.'

The hypocrisy in this is that while tobacco kills 435,000 Americans a year, we continue to sell it - knowing that, even though it's forbidden to minors, any young person who wants to can buy it.

Elders wants to see marijuana treated the same way as alcohol and tobacco, and to have harder drugs dispensed legally on a controlled basis, which would lower their cost and eliminate the crimes that are committed to get the money to buy them. But people do get upset when you talk about relaxing the drug laws.

'I'm aware of that,' Elders said. 'I just have to express what I believe. I can't worry about what other people think. And if you can give me enough facts to show me I'm wrong, I would change.'

Elders says she doesn't regret any of the stands she has taken. 'I feel very good about taking those positions. Many of them were very unpopular then, but more and more people are moving towards my position.'



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