Blessing Marijuana For Mercy's Sake

July 04, 2004

Bill Broadway, Washington Post

Several major religious denominations have joined a growing movement to legalize the medical use of marijuana, asserting an ethical responsibility to help ease the pain and other debilitating effects of such diseases as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. 

The United Methodist Church, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ have made statements supporting the controlled use of marijuana for medical reasons.

'According to our tradition, a physician is obligated to heal the sick,' begins a resolution adopted in November by the Union for Reform Judaism. The statement acknowledges the medical use of marijuana as a 5,000-year-old tradition and encourages the federal government to change marijuana's status from a prohibited substance to a prescription drug.

The denominations have called for a reassessment of penalties for marijuana users trying to increase their appetites during chemotherapy or alleviate chronic pain. 'We believe that seriously ill people should not be subject to arrest and imprisonment for using medical marijuana with their doctors' approval,' asserted a Coalition for Compassionate Access statement endorsed in 2002 by the United Church of Christ.

Some denominations assert strong support for medicinal marijuana but reject its recreational use -- thus supporting one goal of secular marijuana lobbying groups but not the ultimate goal of completely decriminalizing the drug.

'The medical use of any drug should not be seen as encouraging recreational use of the drug,' reads a statement approved last month at the general conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh. 'We urge all persons to abstain from the use of marijuana, unless it has been legally prescribed in a form appropriate for treating a medical condition.'

One thing notable about religious support of medical marijuana has been the lack of intense debate, especially in denominations riven over the issues of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy, according to religious activists.

The Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of alcohol, tobacco and drug programming for the United Methodists' General Board of Church and Society, said delegates to last month's convention voted 877 to 19 in favor of an amendment to drug-use guidelines that supports the drug's medical use in states that allow it.

'The surprising thing, it was almost unanimous,' she said of the vote.

Increased evidence of the drug's usefulness and personal anecdotes of lay members and clergy helped the amendment's passage, she said. During the 18 months her panel worked on the proposal, 'we heard many stories, from conservatives and liberals, of family members, or people they knew or ministered to, who had used marijuana in the course of chronic illness.'

The movement to legalize the medical use of marijuana faces significant opposition, however -- especially from the Justice Department, which enforces federal laws prohibiting the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

'Marijuana is a dangerous drug, a surprisingly dangerous drug,' said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the drug policy office. More teenagers are treated for marijuana abuse than for abuse of any other substance, including alcohol, and any law making marijuana more accessible will exacerbate the problem, he said.

Proponents are trying to circumvent 'a well-developed system for introducing new medicines,' Riley said, adding that a pill form of marijuana's primary active ingredient has been available for years and that other cannabis-based medicines are in the works.

Since 1996, when a successful California referendum opened the door to medical marijuana use there, nine states have enacted laws that allow certain patients to use the drug despite federal prohibitions. 

The most recent addition is Vermont, which last month passed a law allowing qualified patients to grow, possess and use marijuana. The other states are Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. In most cases, patients receive a card or other documentation permitting them to use the drug. 

D.C. residents approved the medical use of marijuana in a 1998 referendum -- 69 percent voted in favor -- but Congress, the District's overseer, has blocked implementation of the law and prevented efforts to hold subsequent referendums on the issue.

Last year, the Maryland legislature stopped short of legalizing marijuana for medical use but passed a bill allowing anyone convicted of marijuana possession to argue for a reduced sentence based on its use to relieve the pain of a chronic or life-threatening illness. Instead of a maximum penalty of a year in jail and $1,000 fine, violators could get off with a $100 fine.

More than a dozen other states, including Virginia and Arizona, have enacted laws that recognize marijuana's medical value but do not protect those involved in its use from federal law, said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobbying organization.

Some of those states have laws that permit doctors to prescribe marijuana as they would any other medication. But those statutes have only symbolic value because federal law clearly prohibits doctors from doing so, and they would be subject to prosecution, Fox said.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last October, however, bars the federal government from punishing doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients.

In the past six years, thousands of patients and hundreds of doctors have participated in medical marijuana programs in the states that allow them, and numerous medical associations have endorsed the concept. More than 4,000 physicians have submitted statements to the Marijuana Policy Project, saying they support the medical use of marijuana, Fox said.

Religious activism on Capitol Hill began heating up in November with the founding of the Silver Spring-based Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, whose purpose is to advocate 'more just and compassionate drug policies,' according to executive director Charles Thomas.

This week, the initiative faxed letters to members of the House of Representatives asking support for an appropriations bill amendment coming up for a House vote after the Fourth of July break.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), would prohibit federal funds from being used to arrest and prosecute approved medical marijuana users and caregivers in states that allow such use. A similar amendment introduced last summer was rejected by a vote of 273 to 152.

Hinchey said the amendment is needed because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has raided the homes of medical marijuana users in such states as California, Colorado and Oregon -- confiscating the drug, making arrests and obtaining some convictions -- despite the states' laws on the issue.

'I'm suggesting to my colleagues that it doesn't make sense to give money to the Justice Department to superimpose its will on several states that decided in the interest of their citizens to go in a different direction,' Hinchey said, acknowledging the legal confusion over a federal law that prohibits marijuana use and state laws that allow it.

Hinchey said there's also an ethical dimension to the issue, involving the freedom to make personal health choices, especially in a system where most medical practices are regulated by state, not federal, law. 'To the maximum extent possible, people should be able to regulate their private lives in the way they see fit, as long as it doesn't interfere with others,' he said.

Hinchey welcomes the support of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and the denominations whose leaders have signed a statement endorsing the House amendment -- the United Methodist Church, the National Progressive Baptist Convention, the Union of Reform Judaism and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The statement reads: 'Licensed medical doctors should not be punished for recommending the medical use of marijuana to seriously ill people, and seriously ill people should not be subject to criminal actions for using marijuana if the patient's physician has told the patient that such use is likely to be beneficial.'

In its letter-writing campaign, the initiative targeted members of Congress who are members of those and other religious groups that have taken a supportive position on medical marijuana. Letters included a subject line that began with the name of the denomination, as in: 'United Methodist Church supports medical marijuana; please vote accordingly.'

General letters were sent to other House members, listing the organizations that support medical marijuana use. 'No denominations have opposed medical marijuana,' the letters assert.

Asked whether the letter wasn't a breach of church-state separation, Thomas responded: 'I don't think it is. It's a chance to educate [representatives] about the thinking of people in their denomination whose job is to put a lot of thought and prayer into a particular issue.'

Some religious leaders have undertaken their own lobbying efforts. In Vermont, Bishop Kenneth Angell of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington personally urged Gov. James Douglas (R), who opposed the bill, not to veto it. Douglas allowed the law to take effect -- without his signature.

The Catholic Church has taken no official position on the issue.

'I know this was a hard decision for Governor Douglas, but I am pleased to hear that he will not veto the bill for Medical Marijuana,' Angell said in a statement. 'I share his concern for the possible abuse of the drug and his worry that our children might misinterpret the message. I am encouraged, however, that the final bill addresses those concerns and still preserves the real intent, which is to offer relief and solace from chronic, severe suffering and pain.'



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