A health care issue
December 12, 2004
EDITORIAL, Sacramento BeeFor the most part, laws in the United States distinguish between medical use of drugs and drug trafficking for illicit recreational use and abuse.
But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General John Ashcroft made a priority of raiding individuals in states that allow medical use of marijuana, including California. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have medical marijuana laws.Sick people who use homegrown marijuana with a doctor's permission and state approval should not be subject to possible arrest, property forfeiture, fines and imprisonment by federal agents. Going after two California women - one with an inoperable brain tumor and another with a degenerative spine disease - is offensive on its face and a waste of federal resources.
George W. Bush as a candidate in 2000 said the federal government should respect state decisions on medical marijuana: 'I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.' That earlier view reflects the traditional view that states have authority over health issues and should prevail in a showdown that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Clearly, the federal government has an interest in preventing drug trafficking. But, just as clearly, states have a traditional interest and expertise in regulating health care.
California's medical marijuana law involves no risk to the rest of the country. Marijuana in California cannot be bought, sold or exchanged in-state or out-of-state. Qualified patients can grow marijuana for personal medical use only with a doctor's recommendation. They are required to have special ID cards. Police can arrest anyone who grows too much marijuana, or tries to sell it.
The Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress in 1970 regulates the national market, dividing drugs into five categories. Marijuana is classified along with heroin and LSD in the strictest Class I category, considered to have 'high potential for abuse' and 'no currently accepted medical use.' Class II through Class V drugs are considered to have 'currently accepted medical use' and may be dispensed and prescribed for medical use - though under strict control since they have potential for abuse. For example, cocaine is classified as a Class II substance, along with methadone and morphine.
A 1999 Institute of Medicine study concluded marijuana has 'potential therapeutic value,' particularly for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting and appetite stimulation for patients with cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. There are health risks associated with smoking, of course. But for terminally ill patients or those with debilitating symptoms, these long-term risks, notes the study, 'are not of great concern.' In the absence of federal action to reclassify marijuana as having 'currently accepted medical use,' states should be allowed flexibility to act.
So long as homegrown marijuana is used only at home for medical purposes with a doctor's recommendation, and doesn't enter the marketplace, the state should be left alone to regulate its traditional health care sphere.