Pubdate: Wed, 30 Jan 2008
Source: Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2008 The Sydney Morning Herald


A few years ago, US politicians who dared to suggest anything other than 
jail time for marijuana users were considered pro-drug fringe candidates.

Not anymore. Now all the major Democratic presidential candidates are 
offering more lenient stands on medical marijuana, and White House hopeful 
Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, has made ending the federal drug war a 
centrepiece of his campaign.

"There has definitely been a change in the political climate for 
liberalisation," says Tim Lynch, a criminal justice expert at the Cato 
Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "I think the people are ahead of 
the politicians, especially of the Washington, DC, politicians, on this issue."

Polls have consistently shown that Americans support marijuana for 
medicinal purposes: a whopping 80 per cent said so in a 2002 Time/ CNN 
survey. In the same poll, about a third approved total legalisation, but 72 
per cent said recreational users should be fined, not incarcerated.

Even in Texas, where medical marijuana legislation has never got off the 
ground, the legislature recently passed a law that allows prosecutors to 
bypass the jail booking process for certain marijuana offenses. It doesn't 
change the penalty, but the legislation marks Texas' first lenient approach 
to marijuana in years.

Experts say the more tolerant approach has its origins in California, where 
in 1996 voters made it legal for people to smoke marijuana with a doctor's 

More than a decade later, 12 states permit some use of medical marijuana, 
and several others, including Michigan, Arizona, New York and Illinois, are 
likely to consider initiatives in 2008, says Bruce Mirken, spokesman for 
the Marijuana Policy Project.

A ballot initiative in Massachusetts aims to go further by decriminalising 
possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it similar to a traffic 

"I think in 10 years, people will look back at the laws that prevented 
people from using marijuana as a medicine and say, 'What the hell were they 
thinking?"' Mirken says.

Of course, not everybody is leaping on the bandwagon. All of the top 
Republican presidential candidates have expressed opposition to the use of 
medical marijuana, and the White House drug czar continues to sound the 
alarm about making it legal under any circumstance, much as it was before 
California voters approved the landmark referendum.

Research has shown that teen drug use has declined steeply nationwide. A 
study released in December showed that illicit teen drug use has dropped 
sharply from levels a decade earlier, with marijuana use in particular 
showing steep declines.

In testimony before Congress last year, Dr David Murray, chief scientist in 
the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, hailed the positive 
trends among teens but said medical marijuana had sparked violence and 
robberies in California. He also warned about the negative health effects 
from inhaling smoked marijuana.

Murray described marijuana as "a substance without medical utility" and 
expressed concern about the wave of state referenda allowing its use.

"The medical marijuana movement is at best a mistake, at worst, a 
deception," Murray said. "The people pushing for this are cynically 
manipulating tragic tales of suffering."

Don't tell that to Tim Timmons. The Garland, Texas, resident, who has 
multiple sclerosis, says politicians are the ones manipulating the 
marijuana issue to appear tough on crime.

Though he takes $US3,000 ($A3,380) worth of prescription drugs a month - 
between 18 and 23 pills a day - he says marijuana is the only thing that 
calms the debilitating spasms in his legs and lets him sleep at night.

Timmons has sent scores of letters to state lawmakers, inviting them to see 
for themselves how marijuana visibly calms his spasms.

Otherwise, he has repeatedly issued this public challenge to state 
lawmakers who oppose medical marijuana: take him to jail themselves if they 
think what he's doing is wrong.

"Come arrest me. I'm here waiting for you," Timmons says, after smoking 
marijuana from a pipe at his home. "You can put the handcuffs on me."
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