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Dopey Federal Thinking

May 27, 2003

Federal drug czar John Walters has plenty of problems on his hands. Crack cocaine use by 10th-graders has climbed for two years. Illegal use of prescription sedatives by older teens is also up. In recent weeks, however, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has wasted his valuable time not only fretting about a problem that doesn't exist but urging Washington to meddle in state matters that should be none of his office's business.

At a hearing of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Walters urged legislators to pass HR 2086, a bill by Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) that would let him use taxpayer dollars to pay for media campaigns directly attacking state medical marijuana programs and ballot initiatives. The bill also would take away at least $11 million that was meant to be used by state and local police against "high-intensity" drug trafficking and give it to federal agents so they can prosecute doctors attempting to prescribe medical marijuana in California and the seven other states that have crafted programs authorizing its limited use.

Rates of marijuana use are at their lowest in 19 years, though its use among teens is certainly still a problem. The media messages that Walters has sponsored, aimed at educating teens that marijuana can be carcinogenic, are certainly worthwhile. There is no evidence, however, that state medical marijuana programs harm anyone. They may be helping many: Studies by the federal Institute of Medicine, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have shown that marijuana can uniquely and effectively relieve the pain and nausea caused by cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses.

The idea of taking away money that local police need to control traffickers who distribute the crack cocaine that turns many street people violent and using it to prosecute doctors helping out dying or chronically pain-ridden patients is not just useless; it is harmful. The crackdowns that HR 2086 envisions should be pondered long and thoughtfully, but the bill was introduced with virtually no debate May 14 and was moved out of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee by voice vote the next day. The full House could consider it as early as this week.

Many of the House Republicans pushing HR 2086 campaigned on promises to keep Washington from interfering with how professionals (such as doctors and business leaders) do their jobs, from meddling with states' rights and from restricting individual liberty. By voting for HR 2086, they would be trampling on all three.

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