Marijuana paranoia

November 29, 2004

EDITORIAL, Boston Globe

SURELY THE federal government has better things to do than harass desperately ill people seeking relief under their states' medical marijuana laws. A reasoned decision by the US Supreme Court, which yesterday heard arguments involving California's therapeutic marijuana law, would help to regulate and monitor these programs rather than driving them underground.

Unfortunately, national and local antidrug campaigns have discouraged reasoned thinking about most proposals involving drugs. The government's contention that controlled medical use of marijuana would 'swell the illicit drug market' is a good example. Morphine, far more dangerous than marijuana, has been prescribed by doctors for years with no corresponding surge in its availability on the street.

Eleven states from California to Montana have passed laws allowing marijuana to be prescribed for diseases including cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma. The active ingredient in marijuana has been shown to relieve symtoms caused by these diseases and their treatment by reducing nausea and vomiting and improving appetite.

Angel Raich, whose California home was raided by federal agents, suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. Her doctors say she has tried every other available therapy and may die without access to marijuana, which eases pain and keeps her strength up. What possible interest can the Bush administration have in making an example out of this woman?

The government argues that it has the right to trump state drug laws under the commerce clause in the Constitution. But these are not trafficking cases. The drug is not being transported across state lines, and in the Raich case, no money even changed hands. In 1995 Justice William Rehnquist ruled in a Texas case involving gun laws that the commerce clause does not confer unlimited power on the federal government.

The Raich case is complicated by states' rights arguments. Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have submitted briefs supporting Raich for reasons quite unrelated to the drug laws. The commerce clause has been an important tool for promoting progressive federal policies from the New Deal to civil rights. But its application has been broadened beyond recognition when it is used to deny citizens medically necessary care.

It would no doubt be better -- as Justice Stephen Breyer suggested yesterday -- if Congress or federal drug and health agencies would clarify that there should be exceptions to the drug laws for medical marijuana. But until Congress finds the necessary backbone, states should be allowed to develop experimental programs.

Illegal drugs have condemned thousands to lives of poverty, crime, and despair. That is no reason to compound the suffering of the seriously ill.

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