Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medical Marijuana Prohibition

Kenneth Michael White, OP/ED, opinioneditorials.com

Since California first did it in 1996, several other States have decriminalized medical marijuana, even though the Federal Government considers all marijuana to be contraband. Despite the constant threat of Federal criminal sanction, there are thousands of people in the United States who use marijuana for medical purposes. Did these people come to their decision to use medical marijuana in accordance with the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Writing from a Birmingham jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., explained the four steps of civil disobedience. First, research must reveal an injustice. If the facts show that a law is unjust, then the next step is to negotiate a remedy with those in a position to fix the problem. If after good faith negotiation the people in power refuse to repair the damage they caused, then the next step is self-purification. Unclean hands should not accuse other hands of being too dirty. The final step of civil disobedience is to actually disobey a civil law.

The facts show that medical marijuana prohibition started because of racial animus directed primarily towards Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Southwest. In 1937, the 75th Congress criminalized marijuana over the objection of the American Medical Association. Prohibitionists told Congress: “The Mexican population cultivates on average two to three tons of weed annually. This the Mexicans make into cigarettes, which they sell at two for twenty-five cents, mostly to white school students” (see Kenneth Michael White, 2004, “The Beginning of Today: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” PublishAmerica, page 22-23).

Since the start of Federal medical marijuana prohibition, there have been advocates calling on the Federal Government to view drug abuse as an issue that requires primarily teachers and doctors, not law enforcement. Most notably, in 1972 a commission created by President Nixon urged the Federal Government to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and in 1999 a rigorous government-controlled study concluded that marijuana has known medical value, even in smoked form. In spite of these findings, as of today the Federal Government refuses to act.

Since the Federal Government has failed to protect the right of individuals under the care of a physician to use marijuana for medical purposes, people who need the plant have been forced to either disobey Federal law or suffer. Pain is a wholly subjective experience, thus medical marijuana patients have had to decide for themselves when private medical need trumps the politics of Washington, D.C.

What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., say about medical marijuana patients? I think he would judge the history of racial prejudice, failed negotiations, and compelling medical need as prudent bases for civil disobedience. I think he would say that following the advice of your doctor is not a crime.

Kenneth Michael White is the author of “The Beginning of Today: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” (PublishAmerica 2004) and “Buck” (PublishAmerica 2004).