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Don't Bar a Pain Killer OKd by Voters

Marijuana: U.S. action would deprive sufferers of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses of a beneficial substance.

April 08, 1998|WILLIE L. BROWN JR. | Willie L. Brown Jr. is the mayor of San Francisco

For San Francisco resident Dixie Romagno, something as simple as taking a shower or climbing stairs can make her double over in excruciating pain.

Dixie is in her 20th year of chronic multiple sclerosis. To alleviate the agonizing bone pain, spasms and spinal cord problems that wrack her body, this 46-year-old grandmother of two uses marijuana. Five million Californians backed her right to do so when they approved a 1996 ballot measure that allows the use of marijuana for people who suffer from AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses.

In San Francisco, we've worked hard to honor that right by making marijuana obtainable through a dispensary clinic that operates with the cooperation of local authorities. But now the federal government wants to take away that right. In January, the Justice Department filed a civil suit to shut down six medical marijuana dispensaries in Northern California, including the San Francisco Marijuana Cultivators Club, which Dixie, along with 8,000 other ailing Californians, depend on for their medicine.

The Justice Department views the suit as a simple case of state law tangling with the supremacy of federal law. "The issue is not the medical use of marijuana," U.S. Atty. Michael Yamaguchi has said. "It's about the persistent violation of federal law."

But as mayor of a city that has seen more than its share of people suffering and dying from AIDS, I know that's not the end of the issue. The debate over medical marijuana is, above all else, about compassion for people in pain.

Enforcing a law for its own sake can still cause unintended harm to innocent persons. The closure of cannabis patient clubs would force individuals like Dixie to suffer needless agony. Many will be compelled to buy their medicine from the streets. This would endanger their lives and place undue burden on local law enforcement whose time would be better spent pursuing real criminals, not desperate patients.

In San Francisco and in cities across the state, local health and police officials have worked with medical marijuana dispensaries to ensure that they operate in the spirit of the law. Controls have been encouraged and implemented to guard against abuse, including the use of standardized medical forms from doctors and photo identification cards certifying legitimate patients.

The current system isn't perfect. But until marijuana is approved by the Federal Drug Administration as a prescription drug, California's medical marijuana dispensaries are a viable medical alternative. Many of the tens of thousands of patients who use marijuana do so often as a last resort when all other prescribed medicines have failed, or produce side effects that cancel out their benefits. Most of them can't cultivate their own marijuana; that's why they rely on the clubs.

Rather than censure this public health crisis with a lawsuit, the Justice Department should urge the Clinton administration to work with local and state governments to implement a plan for distributing medical marijuana that complies with both federal and state law and that puts the needs of patients first.

The California Senate is reviewing a bill to establish a task force that would research and make recommendations about the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to patients in medical need. In December, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is expected to release the results of a study that will report on marijuana's medical effectiveness. These initiatives are promising, but the process will take time.

In the interim, the federal government should impose a moratorium on enforcement of marijuana laws that interfere with the locally regulated operation of cannabis patient clubs and allow patients access to their medicine.

Californians with life-threatening diseases shouldn't have to suffer while their elected representatives work to find a middle ground between local discretion and federal supremacy.

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