Must the ill be made to suffer for such meager gain?

November 28, 2004

EDITORIAL, USA Today

Angel Raich is ill — very ill. She's subject to severe, debilitating pain from an inoperable brain tumor and more than a dozen other ailments, including a chronic wasting condition. Without effective medication, she can't walk, play with her children or sleep.

Angel Raich needs help. But because the California mother of two is following her doctor's recommendation, using marijuana in a desperate effort to find relief, the federal government considers her a criminal. And in its zeal to make an example of Raich, the Justice Department told the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that the federal war on drugs trumps any consideration of compassion for her or others like her.

But is that justice? Or injustice?

Either way, it's one more example of Washington's meddling in the doctor-patient relationship and attempting to usurp an important power historically handled by the states: regulation of medical practice. The Justice Department is still trying to prevent physicians from participating in Oregon's unique Death with Dignity Act, and Congress persists in playing doctor by limiting the techniques for performing otherwise legal abortions. Both issues are also in the courts.

Raich and her physician say they tried dozens of prescription medicines without success before turning to marijuana in various forms. Diane Monson, another California woman who suffers from chronic back trouble and painful muscle spasms, is part of the same case. Two years ago, federal agents seized from Monson's home the cannabis plants she was growing for her own medicinal use.

Since 1996, California and 11 other states from Maine to Hawaii have passed laws aimed at easing or eliminating penalties for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Opponents say there are licensed drugs, including a 'synthetic marijuana,' that are just as effective. But research has found that for some desperate patients like Raich and Monson who have not found help elsewhere, marijuana can provide unique relief from pain, nausea and other conditions.

And despite claims that the medical-marijuana movement is a 'Trojan horse' aimed at undercutting the war on drugs, there are few examples of abuse or further erosion of drug laws in the states that have tried it.

At the Supreme Court, the marijuana case poses a potentially painful choice for those justices who like to take a hard line on law-and-order issues — and also see themselves as protecting the rights of the states from an ever-encroaching federal government.

But that's nothing compared with the pain facing patients like Raich and Monson if their doctors' options for treatment are unreasonably constrained by the fear of drug abuse.



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