Legal chaos over pot Marijuana referendums: California and Arizona "medicalization" opposed by Clinton.

December 20, 1996

WITH THE RELEASE of new figures indicating that 23 percent of youngsters between the ages of 13 and 14 use marijuana, a jump from 19.9 percent a year ago, the federal government is stepping up its assault on new California and Arizona referendums approving the "medicalization" of pot. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the federal drug "czar," calls these state actions "outrageous" and an invitation to the "legalization" of drugs that has brought misery to European nations.

This is an issue that puts Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke squarely at odds with President Clinton. Mr. Schmoke has lauded California and Arizona voters for sending out the message that a serious reassessment of drug policy is needed. He said most voters in those states who favored the medical use of marijuana for victims of cancer and AIDS could distinguish between that cause and the "decriminalization" of drugs.

Quite an opposite interpretation is offered by Thomas A. Constantine, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He told Congress that voters in those two states were tricked by a "sophisticated, misleading campaign" into thinking the referendums were limited to "compassionate pain relief" when, in fact, they were part of a national drive to legalize drugs.

As a result in this Western exercise in direct rather than representative democracy, both sides would probably agree that situation close to legal chaos has developed. In California, anyone with the verbal approval of a physician presumably can legitimately acquire pot to treat an assortment of illnesses. In Arizona, the new policy would also extend to LSD and heroin. Yet General McCaffrey vows the federal government will seek to enforce and impose its own drug prohibitions on Californians and Arizonans who attempt to act under their state laws.

State and local law enforcement officials are clearly torn, hardly knowing what to do. The medical profession is deeply divided between an establishment opposed to the medical use of marijuana smoking and a cadre of doctors and researchers who argue it can be beneficial. Meanwhile, teenage drug use goes up and up as various governmental authorities argue.

Politics is very much present as the Clinton administration tries to fend off Republican criticism. But behind all the arguments there is an undercurrent of agreement that there must be greater emphasis on drug treatment and anti-drug education. As the nation launches into a needed and searching debate on this important question, there can be no excuse for inaction on treatment and anti-drug education. As the nation launches into a needed and searching debate on this important question, there can be no excuse for inaction where something close to a consensus exists.

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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