Alabama poll majority supports medical marijuana use
July 03, 2004
More than three-quarters of Alabamians think doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, though an even larger percentage oppose outright legalization of the drug, the results of a new Mobile Register-University of South Alabama poll suggest.
In last week's statewide survey of 417 people, the majority also expressed indifference about political candidates' stances on medical marijuana, and more than 70 percent said it would not influence their vote if a candidate admitted using marijuana when he or she was young.
The poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, has a 5-percentage-point margin of error.
The survey results come in the wake of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last week to review the question of whether the federal government can prosecute patients who are using marijuana under a doctor's direction.
Nine states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have laws that allow the medical use of marijuana if a doctor recommends it. A majority of those polled last week thought that states, not the federal government, should take the lead in passing laws regarding the medical use of marijuana.
The issue of legalization also has surfaced in Alabama's U.S. Senate race.
Wayne Sowell, a Birmingham Democrat who is challenging three-term U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said he supports the legalization of medical marijuana and of hemp (a non-narcotic relative of marijuana grown for its fiber) as a cash crop.
'Senator Shelby opposes the legalization of marijuana for any reason,' said his spokeswoman, Virginia Davis.
Sowell said last week that he thinks the actual number of Alabamians who support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes may be even higher than the poll indicates, but some people may be hesitant to express that view because of the stigma attached to the drug.
Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that Alabamians' support for medicinal marijuana is in line with polling in other places, which, he said, consistently shows support in the 70 percent to 80 percent range.
Mirken's organization, based in Washington, D.C., focuses on removing criminal penalties for using the drug, 'with a particular emphasis on making marijuana medically available to seriously ill people who have the approval of their doctors,' according to its Web site.
The medical use issue is one that 'clearly the public is most ready to engage in,' Mirken said.
Randy Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorney's Association, said he thinks prosecutors would not view the question of medicinal use of marijuana from a moral perspective but from a resources perspective.
Dealing with drug-related issues is 'an enormous problem for us,' Hillman said, adding that if marijuana was legalized in any form, 'you're about to add another layer onto that.'
Hillman said some may argue that legalizing some uses of marijuana would eliminate the issue for law enforcement. But if it's legalized, he said, 'you can't just turn it loose.'
Authorities would have to ensure the legal forms of marijuana are being used properly, he said, because it has the potential for getting into the wrong hands, as with any controlled substance.
Federal law allows certain people, including physicians and researchers, to dispense or administer so-called schedule I drugs, which include experimental drugs and drugs not available to normal practicing physicians, according to officials with the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.
Marijuana is included in that provision but has not been used by Alabama physicians in about 15 years, said Larry Dixon, executive director of state Board of Medical Examiners.
He said the marijuana used for medical purposes had to be provided by the federal government, which stopped doing so. The only place in Alabama that marijuana could be used for medicinal purposes at this time is at research institutions, Dixon said.
The American Medical Association adopted a policy on medicinal marijuana in 2001, which called for 'further adequate and well-controlled studies of marijuana' in patients with serious conditions. The policy also recommended that marijuana continue to be classified as a schedule I drug, pending the outcome of the studies.
George Krietemeyer, director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free Mobile, said he was surprised that so many Alabamians approved of the medical use of marijuana, because 'I thought Alabama was more conservative than that.'
Krietemeyer said his organization is opposed to the medical use of marijuana, because there are hundreds of other medications doctors can prescribe that have been used successfully to treat seriously ill patients.
A drug called Marinol, for example, is a synthetic form of the major active ingredient in marijuana (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC) and has been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for treating certain chemotherapy and AIDS-related symptoms.
Mirken, with the Marijuana Policy Project, argues that not every drug works for every person. He said research shows that the medicinal effects of marijuana don't all come from THC. Further, Mirken said, marijuana is commonly used to combat nausea, so keeping a pill down can be a problem.
An overwhelming majority of Alabamians polled last week said they would oppose the total legalization of marijuana. But marijuana advocates maintained that the wording of the query can influence the answers received.
'Legalization is almost a buzzword that scares people,' Mirken said. He added that when that particular phrasing is used, people tend to envision marijuana being sold on convenience store shelves, alongside items such as candy bars.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, agreed. The alliance describes itself as 'the leading organization working to broaden the public debate on drug policy and to promote realistic alternatives to the war on drugs.'
Nadelmann said if the question was phrased differently -- so that those polled were asked whether they support treating marijuana like alcohol by regulating and taxing it -- he believes 25 percent of Alabamians would respond favorably, compared to the 13 percent who said they favored legalization.
Keith Nicholls, director of the USA Polling Group, which conducted the poll, said he wouldn't dispute that if a different question was asked, a different answer would be received. But, he pointed out, the issue is not an obscure one, and the results reflect people's reaction to the idea of legalization.
A majority of those polled said that a fine would be the most appropriate punishment for people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Nadelmann called that 'the definition of decriminalization.'
Krietemeyer said the Partnership for a Drug-Free Mobile does not think jail time is appropriate for first-time, small possession offenders. He said serving time does necessarily result in people getting the help they need, and treatment is an option that is not used frequently enough.