THE US SUPREME Courtís May 14 ruling that federal law bans the manufacture and distribution of medicinal marijuana is disappointing, to say the least. But the representatives and senators from the nine states that have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes should lead the charge in Congress to amend federal law and make pot use legal under certain medical circumstances. And voters should let their elected representatives in Congress know that they want the law to allow for medicinal use of marijuana.
Researchers have found that pot helps minimize the nausea that plagues many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It reverses the wasting syndrome that afflicts many AIDS patients. It can ease the symptoms of glaucoma and has even been found to relieve the spasticity sometimes associated with multiple sclerosis. In a recent poll of 960 physicians conducted by Rhode Island Hospital, three-quarters of the doctors had an opinion on the matter. Of those, about half said that marijuana should be available by prescription to those who need it; doctors who frequently saw cancer patients were much more receptive to medicinal marijuana use than those who did not. A 1990 survey of oncologists found that half would prescribe pot if it were legal, and 44 percent said they had recommended the drug at least once. In 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine editorialized that “research should go on, and while it does, marijuana should be available to all patients who need it to help them undergo treatment for life-threatening illnesses.” Even the federal government, in a 1999 study conducted over two years by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that marijuana has clear medicinal benefits.
Yet the feds, who control the nationís only legal supply of marijuana, have made it all but impossible for researchers to obtain the drug. And Congress has failed to pass any legislation on the issue since 1970, when it added marijuana to the Controlled Substances Actís list of illegal drugs. Itís nothing short of political cowardice. Our draconian war on drugs has led us to the point where our laws prohibiting the use of marijuana ó whether for medicinal or recreational purposes ó do more harm than use of the drug itself. If you are convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana in Massachusetts, you can be sentenced to probation or up to six months in prison and fined $500. In 1997, 11,202 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in the Bay State. All this in a culture where revelations of recreational pot use by politicians ó including presidential candidates ó hardly merits the raising of an eyebrow.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon convened a commission to study the effects of marijuana. The committee concluded that federal and state laws should be amended to end criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered a message to Congress in which he repeated the commissionís findings: “Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana for personal use.” Amen.
As of today, nine states ó Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington ó have legalized the medicinal use of pot. Favorable legislation is pending here in Massachusetts (though itís a long shot) as well as in Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont. A recent CNN poll found that 79 percent of Americans support the legalization of medicinal marijuana. Even if the feds prosecute those using marijuana for medicinal purposes under existing law, itís doubtful they could find a jury that would convict.
Not so ironically, the case that resulted in the May 14 Supreme Court ruling involved a federal request for an injunction against a cannabis club based in Oakland, California, that was distributing marijuana to medical patients. Prosecutors took this tack rather than bring charges against the club ó which would have necessitated a jury trial ó because more than 70 percent of voters in Oakland approved Californiaís 1996 medical-marijuana ballot referendum.
There can be little doubt that the public is moving in one direction while our politicians remain too fearful of appearing soft on crime to do the right thing and move with us. Thereís a remedy for that. Itís called voting people out of office.
Congressman Barney Frank has filed legislation that would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. You can call him at (617) 332-3920 to tell him you support his efforts. In the meantime, you can call Congressman Joe Moakley at (617) 428-2000 and Michael Capuano to ask them to support the bill. Any US representative can be e-mailed from www.house.gov/writerep/. You can reach Senator John Kerry at (617) 565-8519 and Senator Ted Kennedy at (617) 565-3170 to tell them you want to see similar legislation filed in the Senate. Either senator can be e-mailed by visiting www.senate.gov and clicking through to his Web page. Contact House Speaker Tom Finneranís office at (617) 727-3600 and Senate president Tom Birminghamís office at (617) 722-1500 (e-mail email@example.com) to let them know you support the medicinal-marijuana legislation now pending at the State House. More important, call your state representative and senator; you can find a complete listing on the Web at www.state.ma.us/legis/legis.htm.
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