Gagging on the gag order

October 15, 2003

THE SUPREME COURT sent a strong signal yesterday that it agrees with those who think the federal anti-marijuana campaign has gone overboard.

In an attempt to thwart the growing movement toward legalizing marijuana for medical use, federal officials sought to yank prescription licenses from physicians who recommend or even discuss the potential benefits of the drug with patients. But the high court refused yesterday to even listen to arguments about why it should overturn an appeals court ruling blocking punishment or investigation of such doctors.

Thus, without taking a formal position on the broader policy, the court has allowed states the leeway to make their own decisions about whether to make pot available to sick people. Further, it refrained from intervening in the doctor-patient relationship to censor physicians' advice.

President Bush's drug czar, John P. Walters, who has built enthusiastically on anti-marijuana policies launched during the Clinton administration, should take the hint from the court and practice restraint.

Mr. Walters is convinced medical use of marijuana is just a scam by potheads who want to legalize the drug for recreational purposes. He has used his official pulpit and taxpayer money to lobby fiercely against state legislation allowing doctors to prescribe pot for patients with cancer, AIDS and other devastating ailments who are seeking relief from pain and nausea.

Despite Mr. Walters' protests, nine states have passed such laws. Maryland took a smaller step this year by reducing the criminal penalty for marijuana possession to a $100 fine for defendants who can prove they have a medical need for the drug.

But the practical value of these state laws hinged heavily on the outcome of the case in California, where federal officials tried to void a medical marijuana exemption by punishing doctors who took advantage of it to recommend the drug for the patients.

In its ruling in the case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said physicians could be prosecuted for helping patients obtain marijuana because it is still illegal under federal law. But it affirmed the free speech rights of doctors to speak candidly to patients without fear of government reprisal.

The high court's decision to let that ruling stand is only a milestone in a long-running saga, but an important one worth applauding.

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