- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

The bedrock rationale for all our laws against marijuana and other forbidden drugs is the insistence that these substances are dangerous to your health — which is why the government must protect you from them. The problem is that if you're unfortunate enough to contract a deadly illness like cancer or AIDS, marijuana may actually help save your life.

So what's the federal policy toward those people? It's simple, really: Drop dead.

That's how the Supreme Court read the law in an important case this week. After California voters approved a measure permitting the use of pot for medical purposes, the U.S. Justice Department decided that the federal law against marijuana had to take priority. It set out to close down clubs that provide the weed to patients in need.

One of them, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, fought back. It insisted that the government was obligated to make an exception to the law in cases of “medical necessity.” A federal appeals court agreed, ruling that the Justice Department had to find a way to accommodate “seriously ill individuals who need cannabis for medical purposes.”

Now, the Justice Department could have taken the position of former drug czar Barry McCaffrey. He insisted that no one needs cannabis for medical purposes, for the simple reason that it has no legitimate medical purposes. But that argument is hard to make when legions of physicians and patients are insisting, from personal experience, that a joint can be the best medicine around. So the government simply asserted that the law allows no exceptions for the petty needs of people wracked by cancer or AIDS.

The Supreme Court didn't endorse the wisdom of this policy, but merely acknowledged that our elected leaders have a right to pursue it. “It is clear from the text of the act,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, “that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception.” Since the job of judges is to “interpret, rather than author, the federal criminal code, we are not at liberty to rewrite it.”

Of course, Congress can also pass a law stipulating that summer begins on Dec. 21, followed six months later by winter, and the Supreme Court presumably would apply it. That decree would be no more ridiculous than denying the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. The movement to allow medical marijuana arose only because many patients found it worked better than anything else they could find, and were willing to take the risk of going to jail rather than endure pointless and sometimes life-threatening agony.

Doctors and nurses have long known that smoking pot can relieve the vicious, debilitating nausea often suffered by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and by AIDS patients, some of whom develop a condition called “wasting,” which causes severe weight loss.

“I have had patients whose nausea and/or wasting were so disabling that they preferred death,” testified AIDS specialist Neil Flynn, a professor at the University of California at Davis medical school, who regards cannabis as a last resort when more conventional medicines don't work. “Almost every patient I have known to have tried marijuana achieved relief from symptoms with it.” For a doctor not to suggest it to a patient in such circumstances, Flynn said, would amount to malpractice.

When the government made the gross mistake of trying to justify its ban on medical marijuana on scientific grounds, a federal court found its effort thunderously unconvincing. Contrary to the government's claims, said Administrative Law Judge Francis Young in a 1988 decision, “the evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision.”

Two years ago, the government's own National Academy of Sciences issued a report by a panel of experts reaching the same conclusion. It found that marijuana can be useful for combating chemotherapy-related nausea, AIDS wasting and muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis. The panel also dismissed concerns that allowing cannabis for medical use would increase its popularity for recreational purposes.

All that medical marijuana supporters ask is for this substance to be made available to patients under the supervision of their doctors when it may do some good. If we allow doctors to prescribe all sorts of powerful medicines that can have serious and even fatal side effects, it's hardly radical to let them prescribe cannabis, which Judge Young described as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

But federal policy, as made by Congress, doesn't allow for scientific evidence or common sense. It rests on two basic propositions. Rule No. 1: Marijuana is bad for you. Rule No. 2: If marijuana is good for you, refer to Rule No. 1.

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