A smoky prescription

    In 1996, California voters approved a proposition that improved the health care possibilities of many Californians. In a state where the issues of illness and wellness are high on residents’ priorities, Prop. 215’s approval should come as no surprise and cause little outrage. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that the health care option in question is the medicinal use of marijuana — a substance that the federal government sees as having no medical benefits and forbids anyone to cultivate, possess or consume.

    Over the last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency has placed California’s medical marijuana movement — which has been growing in force and legitimacy — at the top of its hit list. Highly visible busts in the last month have targeted marijuana growers in Santa Cruz and San Diego, crippling communities’ ability to distribute a drug that our state and these cities deem legal and beneficial.

    Why is this happening? We have a conservative president in the White House: Shouldn’t states’ rights take precedence over the big bad federal government? And why don’t D.C. lawmakers recognize the many studies that have shown marijuana to have beneficial medical uses? The fact is, the current effort to stamp out medical marijuana is misguided, and the conflicting laws on the issue must be reconciled in order to best aid ailing patients.

    The DEA lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is defined as a substance with a high potential for abuse and which lacks “”currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”” In other words, the drug is wildly dangerous and has no medicinal qualities.

    Marijuana hardly fits those criteria. Its detrimental effects are exaggerated; yes, it damages the body, just as smoking and alcohol abuse do, but who ever heard of someone overdosing on too many joints? The same cannot be said for other Schedule I drugs, which include ecstasy, LSD, mescaline, quaaludes and heroin.

    Furthermore, marijuana’s medical benefits are well documented. Studies from the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Michigan and Brown University have shown that cannabinoids, or drugs derived from cannabis, have excellent pain-killing properties and are not addictive, unlike opiates. Furthermore, smoked marijuana was shown in the Annals of Internal Medicine to relieve many of the negative side effects associated with chemotherapy. More studies on the efficacy of smoked marijuana are now being conducted at UCSD.

    All of this has been accepted by California voters and lawmakers, who support the many medical marijuana programs around the state and are seeking to streamline and standardize the process by which is it grown and distributed to those in need. The City of San Diego, for example, is developing a registration system for patients. So why are the feds ripping up plants and threatening the growers with federal prosecution?

    Most legal scholars agree that federal drug law takes precedence over state law in this case. However, there are ways to remedy this situation.

    The easiest is effective decriminalization — that is, the DEA could stop raiding medical marijuana farms unless they have evidence that the marijuana grown there is making its way into less-than-needy hands. This approach may appeal to President Bush, who said in 2000 that he believes “”each state can choose that decision as they so choose.”” Perhaps if he were less preoccupied with important foreign policy issues, he would call the DEA and inform them of his well-reasoned political conviction.

    That solution, however, is tenuous and hardly the most desirable. More reasonable would be changing marijuana’s schedule classification so that doctors could prescribe it. For example, Schedule II drugs, such as cocaine and opium, are described as those with a high potential for abuse and a “”currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.”” A Schedule III classification would allow wider prescription and acknowledge that marijuana’s potential for abuse and physical addiction are substantially lower than many other drugs.

    Until a national consensus is reached, however, the raids in California and other states where medical marijuana has been overwhelmingly legalized by voters must stop. Federal agents must stop taking much-needed medicine out of the hands of AIDS and cancer patients and instead devote their resources to preventing pregnant women from smoking crack and high schoolers from dropping dead from heroin overdoses.

    On the other side of the pot divide, states and cities must develop responsible policies toward the production and distribution of medical marijuana. Santa Cruz’s laws require little verification of a patient’s purported medical need, which could lead to its abuse.

    And finally, hot-under-the-collar drug war proponents must stop claiming that medical marijuana programs are tantamount to or excuses for the legalization of pot. Most medical marijuana supporters don’t want pot in the hands of the average joe any more than they want codeine (a Schedule I drug), ritalin (a Schedule II drug) or vicodin (a Schedule III drug) to be used by those who don’t have a medical need for them.

    This issue cannot afford to be shoved aside until our foreign wars are settled. That could be years, and in the meantime, people are suffering, and state law-abiding people are being persecuted and prosecuted by federal agents. Let’s make this a priority, and make sure the will of Californians doesn’t go up in smoke.

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