Arrest suffering, not medical marijuana patients – Alternative Voices
A country that prides itself on freedom and justice should not arrest the seriously ill for using marijuana as a medicine. Common sense and compassion for the suffering of one’s fellows dictate that they shouldn’t be arrested for seeking relief from their suffering.
But they are being arrested in the United States. The federal government continues to enforce federal marijuana laws against medical marijuana users even in states which have enacted legislation specifically allowing such use. We need to end this injustice by changing the federal law to allow medicinal use of marijuana when recommended by a doctor.
Marijuana was improperly classified by the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 as a schedule I substance–the most restrictive of five categories. A schedule I substance is defined as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Schedule I substances may not be prescribed by physicians.
Opponents of medical marijuana often support their opposition by claiming a lack of scientific evidence proving its medicinal value. But the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (www.mpp.org) reports there are more than seventy modern studies published in peer-reviewed journals or by government agencies verifying that marijuana does have medicinal value. Moreover, in 1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, ruled, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known…. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.”
Marijuana’s known therapeutic uses include treatment for relieving chronic pain, relieving nausea, reducing muscle spasms and spasticity, reducing intraocular eye pressure, and increasing appetite. Marijuana can be beneficial to people who suffer from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, and other ailments.
Recognizing these legitimate medical uses, voters in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and the state of Washington have already passed legislation allowing its medicinal use. This legislation allows patients to grow, possess, and use medical marijuana when approved by a physician. It permits the assistance of a caregiver who is authorized to help the patient grow, acquire, or consume medical marijuana. And it immunizes physicians from liability for discussing or recommending medical use of marijuana.
The New Mexico governor’s office has produced a fact sheet listing organizations which endorse medical access to marijuana. Among them are the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Bar Association, the American Public Health Association; the AIDS Action Council, the British Medical Association, the California Medical Association, the California Nurses Association, the California Pharmacists Association, Kaiser Permanente, the National Association of Attorneys General, the New York State Nurses Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine.
Support for the medical use of marijuana continues to grow. In Maryland, Donald Murphy (Republican-Catonsville), who is attempting to get a medical marijuana bill passed there, has remarked, “As a state, we have a right and a responsibility to act on behalf of the welfare of our citizens. This only strengthens my resolve to continue fighting for a patient’s right to use medical marijuana if it is approved by his or her doctor.”
There is also an important constitutional issue embedded in the current medical marijuana debate: namely, where does the federal government get the authority to impose a national policy on the people in the states in question–people who have already elected a contrary policy? Roger Pilon, Ph.D., J.D., a senior fellow and director of the Center for Constitutional Studies of the Cato Institute, raised this point on October 1, 1997, in a statement before the Crime Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pilon further observed:
The Constitution does not establish a national government of general power;
rather, it establishes a government of enumerated powers only…. There is
no federal police power…. The police power resides in the individual
states–the general governments under our system of dual sovereignty. Thus,
regulations to secure rights in the areas of health, safety, and medical
practice are the doctrinal and historic province of the states, not the
However, as a practical matter, as long as the federal laws prohibiting medical marijuana use remain, patients in the states which have legislatively approved its use will be at risk for arrest and imprisonment from federal law enforcement officials. By enforcing a federal law prohibiting possession or use of medical marijuana, the federal government is thwarting the will of the people. Efforts must therefore be made to bring the federal law back in compliance with states’ rights and the demonstrated will of the people and to remove the criminal penalties for medical marijuana use.
Canada has already done just that. On July 31, 2001, the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations took effect throughout Canada, making it the first country to federally recognize marijuana as a medicine. The Canadian government’s Office of Cannabis Medical Access states:
The regulations establish a compassionate framework to allow the use of
marijuana by people who are suffering from serious illnesses, where
conventional treatments are inappropriate or are not providing adequate
relief of the symptoms related to the medical condition or its treatment,
and where the use of marijuana is expected to have some medical benefit
that outweighs the risk of its use.
These regulations identify three categories of people who are eligible to possess marijuana for medical purposes:
* those who have a terminal illness and a life expectancy of less than twelve months
* those who suffer from severe pain and/or persistent muscle spasms, cancer, AIDS, severe arthritis, or epilepsy
* those with some other serious medical condition where conventional treatments have failed to provide relief.
To be approved as a participant in this program, an applicant must submit a medical declaration, signed by a physician, that describes the symptom for which marijuana is being prescribed, as well as a specific recommended dosage. Once approved, patients are issued photo identification cards entitling them to grow their own marijuana supply, designate someone else to grow it for them, and obtain it from a Canadian government licensed supplier.
A key part of Canada’s medical marijuana program is the use of a government-licensed grower. Prairie Plant Systems, Inc., of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has been selected as the licensed grower for the Canadian government. According to Health Canada, “The grower will be able to provide a reliable source of affordable, quality, standardized marijuana to meet medical and research needs in Canada.”
In the United States, however, seriously ill people, for whom marijuana is an efficacious and necessary treatment, are faced with a dilemma. Should they obey federal law and suffer unnecessarily, or should they disobey federal law (but not state law in many cases) and use marijuana to ease their suffering? Obviously, placing them in such a position of choice is unfair, and U.S. citizens should do everything in their power to convince their federal representatives to correct this situation and approve the medical use of marijuana.
U.S. Representatives Barney Frank (Democrat–Massachusetts) and Ron Paul (Republican–Texas) have introduced a bill into the House of Representatives that would resolve this problem if enacted into law. Bill H.R. 2592–entitled the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act–would move marijuana from schedule I to schedule II of the Controlled Substance Act, thus enabling physicians to legally prescribe marijuana to seriously ill patients where allowed by state law.
As longtime supporters of every human being’s right to choose and to live with dignity, humanists can support this effort by encouraging their congressional representatives to pass H.R. 2592.
Byron Demmer is a freelance writer from Middleport, New York. He holds a B.A. in economics from the University of New Mexico.
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