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A Kinder Pot Policy

November 30, 2004

Of the various fronts in the nation's "war on drugs," none seems more perverse and pointless than the raids that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft pressed Drug Enforcement Administration agents to stage against patients treating themselves with medical marijuana under Proposition 215, a law that California voters passed eight years ago.

On Monday, two of those patients --Angel Raich, an Oakland mother of two who used the drug as a last resort to ease the constant pain of a brain tumor, and Diane Monson of Oroville, who used cannabis to help her stay mobile despite a degenerative spinal disease -- struck back, appealing their right to treatment to the U.S. Supreme Court. That the Justice Department considers them criminals shows something seriously out of whack in Washington.

Ashcroft's lawyers argued, on narrow legal grounds, that the government had every right to prosecute because Congress in 1970 decreed that marijuana was a Schedule 1 drug, a chemical devoid of any possible medicinal value and illegal in all uses. Even morphine and cocaine are granted more legitimate status.

Some of the justices fretted that allowing Raich to grow her own pot and use it would open the floodgates for unlimited recreational use. Granted, not every medical marijuana user has a case like Raich's, but commercial prescription drugs are misused, often widely, without being banned or put on Schedule 1.

Science has marched forward since 1970. Most medical authorities, including the National Academy of Sciences, agree that marijuana can be superior to other substances for the treatment or alleviation of some grave disorders.

Society too has changed. In the elections earlier this month, voters, even in some red states, supported letting seriously ill patients medicate themselves with marijuana. Medical marijuana did better than President Bush in Montana, garnering support of 62%, compared with Bush's 59%. Even in Texas, a poll showed 75% support for legalizing the medical use of marijuana.

With Ashcroft leaving town, Congress should press his likely successor, Alberto Gonzales, to call off the medical marijuana attack dogs. Legislators should also press federal regulators (specifically the DEA) to move marijuana out of Schedule 1 to a lower classification that would allow doctors to at least prescribe it without fear of losing their licenses.

The Supreme Court probably won't rule on the marijuana case for months. Congress and the White House could act much faster, bringing federal policy in line with science and society. No one needs to watch another brain tumor patient engage in a David-and-Goliath legal battle to defend her last-ditch drug of choice.

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