Pubdate: Sun, 20 May 2001
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2001, Ventura County Star


Medical Uses: Congress and Legislature must quickly square state and
federal laws.

Last week's Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana was as
inevitable as it was avoidable.

Ever since states began passing medical marijuana laws -- California
being the first in 1996 -- the conflict between federal and state laws
has not been addressed, leading to confusion and harassment of sick
people who were abiding by state law, but violating federal law.

While this ruling is viewed as a setback for medical marijuana, it
actually renews the urgency for Congress to make marijuana a Schedule
II drug, which can be legally prescribed by physicians.

Five years ago, the Star endorsed Proposition 215, which allowed the
medicinal use of marijuana, but our support was not unconditional.
Among the problems we cited were its vagueness, its lack of a plan for
distribution and the niggling fact it runs afoul of federal law, which
trumps state law.

The latter is what landed the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative
before the Supreme Court, which last week unanimously ruled that
distribution centers are illegal.

Three of the Supreme Court justices, however, wrote a separate
concurring opinion, stressing that, in their view, the ruling affects
only distribution, not use of medical marijuana.

The court did not invalidate Proposition 215 in California, per se, or
the laws in eight other states allowing medical marijuana. But it did
further complicate matters for the people Proposition 215 intended to
help, those sick with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, anorexia and other
serious conditions.

Those are the people our law enforcement agencies, courts, legislators
and voters must not lose sight of as this ruling is interpreted. Not
incidentally, they are also the people juries are least likely to convict.

As it is now, according to a 1970 federal law, marijuana is classified
as a Schedule I drug, devoid of medicinal value. Judge Clarence Thomas
wrote, "Indeed for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act,
marijuana has no currently accepted medical use at all."

However, much has changed in the 31 years since that law was
established -- AIDS, one of the illnesses for which marijuana is
recommended, for one. New research for another, including the 1999
report from the Institute of Medicine at the prestigious National
Academy of Sciences, which concluded marijuana may be effective in
easing chronic pain, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, poor
appetite, wasting caused by AIDS or advanced cancer and muscle spasms
associated with multiple sclerosis.

The 18-month, 290-page study ordered by former federal drug czar Barry
McCaffrey rebutted popular arguments against medical marijuana that
smoking it would lead to the use of other illegal drugs or encourage
the general public to use it.

It also stated that "until a nonsmoked, rapid-onset cannabinoid drug
delivery system becomes available, we acknowledge that there is no
clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions that
might be relieved by smoking marijuana, such as pain or AIDS wasting."

The report recommended that marijuana's effects on pain and nausea be
studied further, although research is hindered by the government's
reluctance to supply the drug and the inability of pharmaceutical
companies to patent it and therefore make a profit, because it is a
natural plant.

The California Medical Association has also stated that "marijuana may
be appropriate under certain circumstances," and criticized the
Supreme Court ruling for limiting physicians' options in treating patients.

It's time for the law to catch up with science and public sentiment.
It's time for Congress to resolve the legal ambiguities that put the
sickest members of society at risk of prosecution and of unnecessary
physical suffering. Fortunately, Massachusetts Congressman Barney
Frank has already sponsored such a bill, which would put marijuana in
the same category as other controlled substances, such as morphine,
that can be prescribed by a doctor.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose mother and sister died
of leukemia, has long been urging a resolution between state and
federal marijuana laws, making a similar proposal two years ago.

As he meets to discuss the Supreme Court ruling with local law
enforcement agencies in the days ahead, Mr. Lockyer should also
explore the possibility of the state distributing medical marijuana,
as is being proposed in the Nevada and Maine legislatures.

Controlled substances, stronger and riskier than marijuana, are
prescribed by physicians every day. Marijuana should not be treated
any differently.
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