Through all his years in politics, despite the endless obligation to shake hands, smile for the cameras and coax money out of contributors, Sen. John McCain has somehow avoided becoming a complete phony. Annoy Mr. McCain, and you won't have to wait long to find out.
Even a sickly, soft-spoken woman in a wheelchair gets no pass from him. The other day, at a meeting with voters in New Hampshire, Linda Macia mentioned her use of medical marijuana and politely asked his position on permitting it. Barely were the words out of her mouth before Mr. McCain spun on his heel, stalked away and heaped scorn on the idea.
"You may be one of the unique cases in America that only medical marijuana can relieve pain from," he said, in a skeptical tone. "Every medical expert I know of, including the AMA [American Medical Association], says there are much more effective and much more, uh, better treatments for pain." He also ridiculed the notion that police would arrest patients for using marijuana as medicine.
It's refreshing that the Arizona Republican is willing to state his position with such unvarnished candor. It would be even better if he knew what he was talking about.
Apparently he missed the news that federal agents recently raided the home of Leonard French, a paraplegic who had been authorized under New Mexico law to use cannabis for his condition. He now faces possible federal charges, not to mention that he was deprived of the medicine recommended by his doctor.
As for medical experts, Mr. McCain could easily find plenty who testify to the therapeutic value of pot. The American Academy of HIV Medicine says that "when appropriately prescribed and monitored, marijuana/cannabis can provide immeasurable benefits for the health and well-being of our patients." The New England Journal of Medicine has called the federal ban on medical marijuana "misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane."
It's true that arrests of patients are rare. But that's often little consolation. Consider the case of Angel Raich, a California cancer victim whose marijuana was confiscated in a federal drug raid. When she challenged the federal law, an appeals court ruled against her. But the court also had to acknowledge, "Raich's physician presented uncontroverted evidence that Raich `cannot be without cannabis as medicine' because she would quickly suffer `precipitous medical deterioration' and `could very well die.'" But none of that mattered. In the end, the government and the courts gave Ms. Raich a choice: Obey federal law, or risk jail by using the only treatment that helped her.
Bush administration officials often insist there are no definitive studies proving the curative powers of marijuana. What they omit is that the federal government has done everything in its power to prevent such research.
That effort has not entirely succeeded, though. Recently, the journal Neurology published the results of one clinical trial of HIV patients. It showed that pot "effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated sensory neuropathy," with no adverse side effects.
The mystery is not why anyone believes cannabis can be safe and effective therapy. The mystery is why so many politicians, particularly GOP presidential candidates - Ron Paul, a physician, being the heroic exception - are unwilling to consider the possibility, or to leave the matter up to the states.
Wherever you look, public opinion supports medical marijuana. In Texas, a 2004 Scripps-Howard poll found that 75 percent of the people favor allowing it - including 67 percent of Republicans. Such red states as Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Nevada are among the 12 that have legalized medical marijuana.
What Mr. McCain ought to say is that he would rather ignore medical opinion, and inflict needless pain on people whose doctors say they could be helped by marijuana, than admit the federal ban is a mistake. Now that would be real candor.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.