Standing up to bullies

April 06, 2003

A CANCER PATIENT in her 20s in a city far from here developed a practice of periodically leaving her hospital bed to go outside for a smoke.

To the casual observer, she appeared part of the tobacco crowd. But she was actually smoking a joint. The patient had the full, if unofficial, permission of her oncology nurse for this illegal act. The nurse explained in recounting the tale that she was grateful for anything that could relieve the suffering of a young woman ravaged by horrible disease.

Such compassionate health professionals are leading the drive in Maryland and across the nation to legalize marijuana for medical use because they have witnessed its value in reducing pain and ameliorating the side effects of chemotherapy.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who watched his brother-in-law endure such suffering, says his sympathies lie with medical marijuana advocates.

He is resisting pressure from self-righteous moralists in the White House who want him to veto a modest proposal that would reduce penalties on the very sick for marijuana possession.

He should be applauded for his stand. Indeed, instead of threatening Governor Ehrlich with lawsuits, the Bush administration should follow his cue. This is an issue that lawmakers of both parties here understand transcends politics. If medicine has the power to relieve the agony of a patient's dying days, why should that be denied?

Increasingly shrill opponents of the legislation sound like the old still-smashers of the late 19th century. They warn of children newly encouraged to try the drug and point to the heroin-racked streets of Baltimore as the inevitable result of such experimentation.

Yet there are any number of substances, legal and illegal, that can lead to devastating addictions - alcohol and tobacco come quickly to mind. It's a lot easier to provide children with the values and survival skills to protect themselves than it is to rid the world of temptations.

And in any case, many drugs deemed too dangerous for casual use are legally available through prescription as medicines.

The cannabis herb was such a drug until relatively recently.

Recognized for thousands of years for its medicinal value, it was legally available with a prescription in this country until 1937, when Harry J. Anslinger, federal drug czar of his era, convinced Congress it posed a threat. His evidence rested in part on the "satanic music, jazz and swing," produced by alleged marijuana users in the entertainment industry.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is now using that federal prohibition as grounds to threaten legal action against states that act on their own to decriminalize the drug.

Fortunately, for Marylanders with cancer, AIDS and other grave ailments, Governor Ehrlich and the General Assembly are not so easily bullied.

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