Pubdate: Fri, 17 Oct 2003
Source: Tuscaloosa News, The (AL)
Copyright: 2003 The Tuscaloosa News
Author: Katherine Lee


The Hippocratic Oath begins with the order, "First, do no harm."

With the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday, doctors can now be reasonably 
sure they won't be prosecuted if they follow that dictum. The decision lets 
stand an appeals court ruling that doctors may not be investigated, 
threatened or punished for prescribing medical marijuana.

That means doctors in the 12 states where medical marijuana is legal can 
actually talk about it with their patients, rather than skirt the subject 
for fear of losing their licenses.

The decision by the court is at odds with the federal government's stance 
that marijuana has no medical value at all, despite a growing body of 
evidence that it can be effective in easing pain. Both the Clinton and Bush 
administrations opposed state laws such as California's Compassionate Use 
Act, threatening prosecution for doctors who might have prescribed pot for 
their patients battling the nausea of chemotherapy or suffering from glaucoma.

It was a surprising move for the Supreme Court, but one that's a hopeful 
sign the court isn't entirely without heart. The prospect of enforcing a 
federal ban that several states have already rejected, at the expense, in 
some cases, of the dying, was too much.

So the 80-year-old grandmother who makes pot brownies for her neighbors 
dying of AIDS, the cannabis clubs where people battling cancer buy a small 
period of pain-free time, are safe for now.

The California case, Walters v. Conant, involved doctors, patients and 
organizations who brought a class-action lawsuit in 1997 to challenge the 
Clinton administration's policy.

Imagine their surprise when the Supreme Court decided that the Ninth 
Circuit Court of Appeals was right. The prosecution of doctors who 
prescribed medical marijuana was a violation of a doctor's free speech 
rights, not to mention a violation of basic human ones.

It is a terrible policy that forces doctors to make a decision between 
their patients' lives and their own jobs.

To someone whose livelihood is to make people healthier -- or if they 
can't, to at least make them feel better -- such a choice is a Faustian 
bargain. But for medical marijuana opponents such as the Bush 
administration, the fact that the appeals court ruling flies in the face of 
politics is more important.

In its appeal to last October's ruling, the administration called it "an 
unprecedented judicial intrusion on the executive branch's investigatory 

Funny how the president believes fervently in government keeping its mitts 
off states' business, except when it comes to morality and ethics. 
Government may have no place in the free market, Bush thinks, but it sure 
likes to put a foot down when it can dictate who gets to share a bed or 
whether a cancer victim gets to smoke pot to keep from throwing up every day.

The court, however, recognized that sometimes federal law makes no sense, 
especially in the face of weightier concerns, such as how we want to treat 
each other, in sickness and in health.

The use of medical marijuana dates back to ancient times, and the American 
Medical Association has long maintained that any federal ban on its use 
include an exemption for medical purposes, to little avail. Congress passed 
the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 and effectively cut off any funding 
for research into whether those claims had substance. Studies since have 
shown, however, that marijuana is an effective anti-nausea drug.

We do a pretty poor job, as a nation, in providing health care for those 
who can't pay. At the very least we can try to ease someone's suffering 
when we know we can, not turn it into a criminal act.

Illnesses like cancer and AIDS are hard enough to fight even with willpower 
and the best of medical care. Adding a court fight to the mix is too much. 
If our health care system exists to cure and alleviate pain, shouldn't we 
use the tools available, even if one of those tools is a substance some 
people fear out of all proportion to its actual effect?

The court said yes. And we are better for it. As doctors are exhorted to do 
no harm, nor should our federal government.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman