Medical marijuana movement still stonewalled by enemies

March 02, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- Modern cancer treatments have saved countless lives, but they can be a cruelly mixed blessing. Chemotherapy, often indispensable in curing cancer, sometimes is enough to make you ill, causing violent nausea and vomiting.

Luckily, there is a well-established and safe remedy recommended by many cancer physicians that sometimes provides relief when nothing else can. Not so luckily, the remedy is marijuana. Under federal law, cannabis is forbidden -- even for therapeutic use by seriously ill people who have no more interest in getting high than they do in bungee jumping. The Bush administration, in its generosity, is willing to let these patients have any medicine except the one they need.

In the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards often sound nearly indistinguishable on the issues. But when it comes to medical marijuana, there is plenty of space between them. Mr. Edwards sounds like President Bush, while Mr. Kerry has suggested that the established federal policy has been a mistake.

Under the Carter administration, the federal government recognized the medical potential of cannabis and set up a "compassionate use program" that not only allowed some patients to use pot but gave them a supply. This humane concession, however, didn't survive the first Bush administration, which slammed the door on new patients.

Anyone expecting better from Bill Clinton, that child of the '60s, was doomed to disappointment. The president who didn't inhale made sure no Republican could portray him as soft on drugs. His administration refused to change federal policy and vehemently crusaded against state measures legalizing medical marijuana.

The current Bush administration has been equally horrified by the idea that marijuana could be anything but evil. Not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when you might have thought the Justice Department had more urgent priorities, federal agents continued raiding "cannabis clubs" that furnish pot to patients whose doctors have prescribed it, in accordance with state law.

As if it weren't enough to dictate what goes into patients' mouths, Attorney General John Ashcroft also took it upon himself to dictate what could come out of doctors' mouths: The administration made it illegal for physicians to prescribe or even discuss marijuana with their patients as a treatment.

But the administration's campaign has lately run off the rails. Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the policy was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court let that decision stand. Then, the same appeals court ordered an end to the prosecution of California cannabis club patients and suppliers.

The court ruled that the matter was a state concern beyond the legitimate reach of the federal government. Conservatives, who have often applauded the Supreme Court's decisions reinvigorating the power of states against the encroachments of Washington, were surprised to find that the same doctrine could be used to corral a conservative administration.

But that hasn't stopped the president's lieutenants from pursuing their vendetta. Andrea Barthwell, deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, denounced the 9th Circuit's reasoning. "There is no scientific evidence that qualifies smoked marijuana to be called medicine," she declared.

Her opinion rejects the view of many medical professionals, including those at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, which has called for rescinding the federal ban. It also ignores a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, a federal body, which recognized "the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation."

On this issue, Mr. Kerry is in perfect step with public opinion. Ten states have legalized medical marijuana, and more than 30 have passed resolutions in favor of it. Polls indicate that the great majority of Americans think cannabis should be available for whatever medical value it has.

But Mr. Bush and Mr. Edwards want to continue a vindictive policy that ignores the experience of medical professionals, shortchanges science and treats suffering people as criminals. It's enough to make you ill.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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