U.S. drug laws threaten public health

May 15, 2004

Doug Bandow, Syndicated Columnist

WASHINGTON -- The current and previous presidents of the United States used marijuana. So has presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to drug use. Conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who once beat the drums for jailing white junkies, has been through drug treatment.

Some 75,000 Californians now use marijuana under a doctor's care. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand an appellate court ruling barring Uncle Sam from punishing doctors who prescribe medical marijuana under state law.

A federal district court in California has allowed defendants to introduce evidence that they were growing marijuana for medical purposes. San Francisco is considering creating nonprofit marijuana cooperatives.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, signed legislation slashing punishment for medical use of marijuana. Connecticut is moving to legalize medical pot. Republican legislator Angelo Saviano has proposed that Illinois do the same. After surviving a bout with prostate cancer, New York State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno says that he may support a similar measure.

A state court recently affirmed the constitutional right of Alaskans to grow marijuana at home. Alaskans will vote this year on an initiative to legalize personal pot use.

The Netherlands allows personal possession and cannabis coffee shops. Spain no longer arrests recreational users; Portugal and Luxembourg have decriminalized marijuana consumption. Belgium permits medical use of marijuana and is considering allowing citizens to grow small amounts of pot. Local authorities in France and Germany decide whether to arrest cannabis users.

In Britain most pot users are now warned rather than arrested. A police chief has called for legalizing heroin. The British Department of Health is nearing final approval of a marijuana inhaler for medical purposes. Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland all are debating relaxing their marijuana laws. Canada provides marijuana through its health-care program, plans to make pot available in pharmacies and has proposed decriminalizing pot consumption.

Venezuela is decriminalizing drug possession. Top Brazilian officials have recommended doing the same. A joint select committee in Jamaica has recommended decriminalization.

Why toss pot smokers in jail while tolerating use of alcohol and cigarettes? People should abstain from all of them, but they should not be imprisoned if they do not.

Some of Limbaugh's conservative defenders argued that an addiction arising from an illness deserved special dispensation. If so, people using marijuana as medicine also warrant compassionate treatment. For instance, Angel McClary Raich of Oakland, Calif., smokes marijuana to combat nausea resulting from her treatment for brain cancer. 'The alternatives have been ineffective or result in intolerable side effects,' says her physician, Dr. Frank Lucido.

Teddy Hiteman of Henderson, Nevada, suffers from multiple sclerosis. 'Medicinal pot has been a godsend,' she says.

Michael Ferrucci of Livermore, Calif., has lung and testicular cancer. Marijuana 'has been far more beneficial to me than other medications they have recommended to me,' he says.

The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs has reported that 'anecdotal, survey and clinical data' demonstrate marijuana's medical usefulness. The National Institutes of Health stated that 'Marijuana looks promising enough to recommend that there be new controlled studies done.' Groups ranging from the American Cancer Society to Kaiser Permanente support access to or research on medical marijuana.

In one survey, more than 70 percent of American cancer specialists said they would prescribe marijuana if it was legal. A poll of the British Medical Association yielded similar results.

The New England Journal of Medicine has backed access to medical marijuana. Last year Lancet Neurology pointed out that marijuana had proved effective against pain in lab tests and could become 'the aspirin of the 21st Century.' A recent issue of Brain journal reported: 'cannabis may also slow down the neuro-degenerative processes that ultimately lead to chronic disability in multiple sclerosis and probably other diseases.'

Allowing the medical use of marijuana does not prevent the government from punishing recreational users. The General Accounting Office concluded 'that medical marijuana laws have had little impact on their law enforcement activities.'

Candidate George W. Bush said 'I believe each state can choose' what to do about medical marijuana. But under President Bush, reports Dean Murphy of the New York Times: 'Federal agents have raided farms where medicinal marijuana is grown, closed cooperatives where it is distributed and threatened to punish doctors who discussed it with their patients.' Sadly, drug warriors are more interested in punishing drug users who threaten no one than in aiding the sick and dying.

The U.S. drug war has failed: America's drug laws pose a far greater threat to public health and safety than does drug abuse. Drug use should be treated as a medical and moral issue, not a criminal one.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of 'Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.'



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