Medical marijuana vs. the war on drugs

November 30, 2004

EDITORIAL, Seattle Times

Medical marijuana was the topic Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court. The question was whether noncommercial medical marijuana could be banned by the federal government or whether the Constitution left it up to the states. The right answer is to leave it to the states.

The practical and humane reason is that people are suffering, the states are responding and the federal government isn't. The woman bringing the case, Angel McClary Raich, has an inoperable brain tumor. It is a struggle for her to keep down enough food to stay alive.

Her doctor claims that he has tried 35 different treatments, and marijuana is what works. It is inhumane to deprive her of it simply because it creates an exception to the war on drugs.

There is also a legal issue. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate 'commerce among the states.' Since the New Deal, the Supreme Court has interpreted that permissively, to mean any activity that could affect commerce in any way.

The defining case was about a farmer who raised wheat for his chickens. In 1942, the Court said the federal government could limit the wheat acreage of that farmer because if all farmers could freely grow wheat for their chickens, they might affect the price of wheat.

On Monday, one of the main arguments at the Supreme Court was whether growing marijuana for sick people was like growing wheat for chickens.

It is different in this respect: In the chicken case, no one's life or health was at stake. It is wrong to take away a woman's medical treatments to preserve a 62-year-old ruling on the federal farm program.

If Raich wins, the states that have legalized medical marijuana — including Washington through a people's initiative — will have a way to be left alone: Allow people to grow it but not sell it, and reserve it for people who are sick. That will protect a neutral zone in the war on drugs, but would be directly related to public health.

The court should carefully consider the long-term impact of a ruling, but it should not deprive Raich of the treatment her doctor prescribes.

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