Pubdate: Tue, 28 Sept 1999
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Author: Philip Terzian


There has been a curious wrestling match here between the government
of the District of Columbia and Congress. The District government won
the latest round; but Congress, which has the ultimate authority on
laws in the nation's capital, will prevail in the end. The question is
whether it ought to prevail.

The subject, of all things, is marijuana. A year ago, voters were
asked to consider legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal
purposes. The referendum went to a vote on Election Day 1998, but
before the tally could be publicized, Congress stepped in to prevent
release of the results. The subsequent tug-of-war between Congress and
advocates of what is called medical marijuana - who include the mayor
of Washington, Anthony Williams - was resolved recently by a federal
judge, who ruled the vote should be public knowledge. As expected, the
marijuana referendum was endorsed by 69 percent of those who bothered
to cast ballots (75,536 voters).

This is not the only place where such votes have been cast: In four
states - California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska - medical-marijuana
laws are already in effect, and more are doubtless on the way. The
District of Columbia, however, faces an immovable object. Congress is
overwhelmingly opposed to the law, and under the District's home-rule
charter, that ends the argument.

This has led to a furious debate about the status of the District as a
creature of Congress and the rights of District residents to make
their own laws. The trouble with this argument is that the District of
Columbia was created by Congress in 1787 as a 'federal enclave.'
Ironically, while Congress has endorsed statehood for the District in
past years, it is the 50 states that have generally resisted amending
the Constitution. Of course, no one is forced at gunpoint to live in
Washington, and so Congress has the final word on the subject.

It should be said that members of Congress oppose the
medical-marijuana law on principle: They are not determined to make
District residents miserable; they believe any relaxation of the laws
governing marijuana sends the wrong message in the war on drugs. It
also would make enforcement of existing laws difficult in the nation's
capital, where the previous mayor was once imprisoned for using crack

Even some supporters of the law admit that voting for the medicinal
use of marijuana would yield '30-second ads claiming they voted to
legalize drugs,' in the words of one congressman. Appealing to the
pot-smoking residents of Washington, D.C., does you little good back
home in Iowa.

Yet it is a difficult issue. Advocates of medicinal marijuana claim it
relieves the symptoms of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses, as well as
the side effects of chemotherapy. Much of the medical evidence for
this is dubious, and opponents point out that other drugs exist for
such contingencies. There is also the slippery-slope argument: If
marijuana were to be legalized in the District of Columbia for
medicinal purposes, you can imagine the fun-loving physicians who
would write prescriptions for their 'suffering' friends. During
Prohibition, after all, medicinal brandy and whiskey were popular
tonics for thirsty patients.

Which is precisely the point: In contemplating the war on drugs, we
are led to the memory of Prohibition - another historic failure of
government policy. By coincidence, in the very week that results of
the medical-marijuana vote were released, it was announced that the
United States would dispatch unprecedented assistance - including
weapons, ammunition and personnel - to Colombia to fight that
country's ever-growing cocaine and heroin trade.

As with any war where things aren't going so well, it is a good idea
to step back and calculate losses and gains. Any objective evaluation
of the war on drugs would reach an obvious conclusion: Not only has it
failed to prevent the import of illegal drugs from foreign lands, it
has done little to reduce the appetite for drugs here in America. This
is a market-driven phenomenon, and the market is thumbing its nose at
the war on drugs.

The sincerity of the combatants is not at issue: It is perfectly
understandable that some people would wish to discourage other people
from behavior that can be self-destructive. But as our recent hysteria
about smoking reminds us, there is a lot of self-destructive behavior
- - tobacco, alcohol, sugar, cholesterol, sexual promiscuity - that is
legal and impervious to taboos and restrictions.

By all means, the use of drugs should be discouraged; but how long can
a war against their use be sustained? We are considerably more
tolerant of, say, reckless drivers than we are of wretches who crave
marijuana, who face stiff legal sanctions and imprisonment. And yet,
who is more dangerous to encounter on the street?
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek Rea