Feds' Wayward Path on Pot

July 06, 2004

EDITORIAL, Los Angeles Times

It isn't surprising that the Bush administration clashed with California over its 1996 voter initiative that approved medical use of marijuana under remarkably liberal conditions. The Justice Department raided medical pot farms, arrested medical pot distributors and threatened to prosecute doctors for recommending or prescribing marijuana to AIDS and cancer patients and other chronically ill people. 

Today, however, the Justice Department's medical marijuana war seems increasingly out of step with the whole country. Last fall, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling barring federal officials from prosecuting doctors for their recommendations. Two months ago, Vermont became the ninth state to let seriously ill patients use medicinal marijuana. And two weeks ago, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other mainstream religious groups supported doctors' rights to prescribe pot as a when-all-else-fails treatment for the seriously ill. 

A House bill scheduled for a vote today would prohibit the use of federal funds to arrest and prosecute doctors, medical marijuana users and caregivers. A similar bill was defeated last year on a 273-152 vote. This year's bipartisan measure, by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Sam Farr (D-Salinas), is not expected to pass either but is likely to pick up several more votes. Opponents increasingly don't deny the medical benefits of pot but still fear implicit sanctioning of its recreational use. 

The best way to thwart casual use of the drug is to let doctors prescribe it in closely circumscribed and carefully regulated ways. And under federal law, neither the courts nor legislatures can do that. Only the Drug Enforcement Administration can get at the root of the problem: its nonsensical classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance, a taboo category for drugs such as heroin that have no 'accepted medical use' and a high potential for abuse. The DEA should move marijuana to at least Schedule II, its slightly less prohibitive category for morphine and cocaine. 

That change isn't likely to happen in an election year. But as voters speak in more states, as the Supreme Court considers their right to do so, and medical journals and studies continue to find benefit in marijuana, the Justice Department should explicitly cease its campaign of intimidation.

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