Protecting patients

July 09, 2004

EDITORIAL, Orange County Register


The U.S. Supreme Court will handle yet another case involving medical marijuana and federal law enforcement next fall. But Congress could make the issue moot this week - and express solidarity with popular opinion and the principles of federalism - by passing the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to an appropriations bill, due for consideration today.

Co-sponsored by Huntington Beach Republican Dana Rohrabacher and New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, the amendment would stipulate that no funds appropriated to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent certain states 'from implementing state laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana in those states.'

This amendment is exactly the right way to handle this issue. Congress, and specifically the House of Representatives, is constitutionally authorized to control the federal purse strings, and the place to set policy by directing how funds can or cannot be spent.

Eleven states, including California, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington, have laws authorizing the use of marijuana by patients with a recommendation from a physician. Vermont just joined the club.

In our federalist scheme of government, health, safety and medical scope-of-practice decisions have traditionally been made at the state level. Particularly when there are no interstate commerce implications, the national government has only limited authority, if any at all, to interfere in such decisions.

None of the state laws authorizing the medical use of marijuana or cannabis has been challenged on the grounds that federal law holds supremacy in this field. None of the many opponents of medical marijuana laws has wanted to take the risk of making this argument in court.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration, until recently enjoined by federal courts, did undertake an aggressive campaign of arresting and trying medical users of marijuana under federal law, often in circumstances in which defendants were prevented from mentioning in court that the user of marijuana was a patient and in compliance with state law. That concerted campaign to nullify a state law duly passed by initiative of the voters and still supported by the people was an egregious abuse of federal power.

Unfortunately, when the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment was brought up last time, its was defeated, and Orange County Reps. Cox, Royce, Miller and Issa voted against it. We hope they will reconsider this time. This amendment should be attractive both to conservatives, because it upholds federalism and opposes the misuse of federal power, and populists, because every reliable poll shows 75-80 percent of the American people, across party lines, support the medical use of marijuana.

There is simply no constituency in this country - beyond a few DEA officials - for jailing cancer, MS and AIDS patients for using a substance that relieves their suffering. It's long past time for the rest of Orange County's congressional delegation to catch up with science and public opinion on this issue.

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