Anti-Reefer Madness Makes Drug War Victims Turn to Courts

January 04, 2005

, Daily Herald - Arlington Heights, IL

Three decades before the current medicinal marijuana debate now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Illinois did the right thing. It passed a state law in 1978 making it legal for some sick people to seek medical relief by smoking a little doctor-prescribed weed.

'We do have that law on the books. It is a dead letter, though,' complains attorney David Stepanich, who represented a Lake County patient convicted in 2003 of growing marijuana that she said helped alleviate pain from a degenerative eye disease.

'Illinois never funded the program,' explains Paul Arnentano, senior policy analyst for The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( 'They never pulled the trigger on the program, and at this point, it is dormant.'

A new Illinois medical marijuana bill introduced this year died in committee but will be reintroduced in January, says Bryan Brickner, chair of Illinois NORML. (For details, visit

Surveys show that the majority of Americans think doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to patients who may benefit from it, and 11 other states have new laws granting that freedom. But the Supreme Court may rule that the federal government's 'zero tolerance' war against pot supersedes any of the states' 'compassionate use' laws.

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Medicinal marijuana supporters looking to the court for permission shouldn't get their hopes up, Stepanich predicts.

'It's not going to happen due to what politics has become ... and the continuation of this ridiculous drug war,' Stepanich says.

A government that spends billions fighting marijuana, imprisoning the people who use it, and, in some cases, confiscating their property and profiting off the drug war, doesn't want to surrender the medical front, Stepanich reasons. Neither, I suspect, do pharmaceutical companies that make a lot of money selling the antidepressant Zoloft, the painkiller OxyContin, the appetite- stimulator Marinol, the anti-nausea drug Dexamethasone, and other powerful pharmaceuticals that don't grow free and wild in people's back yards.

Any politician who tries to inject common sense into the argument is branded 'soft on crime,' notes Jason Turuc, a 31-year- old Schaumburg photographer and Air Force veteran who is vice president of the Illinois Marijuana Party (

'If it was just the medical, the science talk, this thing would have been over,' and medicinal marijuana would be legal in all states, Brickner says.

'It has nothing to do with medicine,' concurs Stepanich, a former prosecutor. 'It's a political issue. They have a problem with it because of what marijuana symbolizes. I think it's the whole stigma with the counterculture from the late '60s. It's got political mileage.'

It's as if the powers that be believe that if the government caves on medicinal marijuana, then the hippies have won.

(Disclaimer: While I think we should legalize, regulate and tax pot as we do beer, tobacco and many other drugs, I am among the minority of Americans who went to high school and college during the 1970s and never tried pot. I say this not out of pride or embarrassment, but to counter the stereotype that all 'legalize pot' supporters are burned-out hippies who get high and listen to Joan Baez as they wile away the hours playing Hacky Sack in the Quad.)

Like many legal drugs, marijuana has ruined lives, led to fatal accidents and caused untold heartbreaks. But it makes sense to give marijuana the same FDA 'safety and efficacy' treatment that we use to justify the medicinal use of powerful and addictive narcotics such as morphine. Fears that medicinal marijuana will lead to an increase in recreational use of the drug by kids are irrational.

A 2004 survey released by the California attorney general shows that adolescent marijuana use in that state is down nearly 50 percent since it legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996 - the law that now sits before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Regardless of how the justices rule in this case, legislators need to take marijuana off the political stage and give it to the medical community.

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