Having Drug Enforcement Administration agents bust the sick who smoke marijuana for such nefarious purposes as relieving the nausea of chemotherapy was one of the more ridiculous boondoggles of the Bush administration. Rarely have federal drug enforcement resources been more misdirected than on these half-baked raids.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s instruction to federal prosecutors to back away from cases against medical marijuana patients is a sign that the Justice Department has finally sworn off whatever had temporarily impaired reason in the agency.
Monday's action does not really steer the nation toward a new policy on marijuana use. Rather, it would seem to set the stage for a more rational approach to regulating medical marijuana.
After all, using limited federal resources to go after ordinary people who are deemed in a number of states to have legitimate cause to use marijuana was akin to sending the FBI to conduct mass arrests of mattress tag cutters. Sure, it's against the law, but have police nothing better to do?
In Maryland, lawmakers grappled with this issue six years ago and agreed that anyone arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana who can demonstrate "medical necessity" gets no more than a $100 fine. Parking tickets can be worse.
Despite pressure from the White House, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed that measure into law, and somehow the state didn't fall apart.
A pill form of marijuana's active ingredient, THC, has been legally available as a prescription for years, but it's been found wanting. A wrist-slap penalty for medicinal marijuana was a compromise: Maryland didn't legalize sale or possession any more than the Justice Department did this week.
It's not enough. If society genuinely believes in the medicinal use of marijuana, then patients need more than the comfort of knowing they won't make the FBI's Most Wanted List. They need to be able to legally acquire it with a doctor's prescription.
Distribute a controlled, dangerous substance through pharmacies? That's hardly groundbreaking stuff. Cocaine is used for medicinal purposes, too, as are a number of other narcotics.
But to get to that point will require the federal government to not only hold back the SWAT teams but to decriminalize medicinal marijuana. That's an unlikely prospect considering the sharp criticism leveled this week by Republicans at Mr. Holder's exercise of discretion.
In the meantime, states including Maryland ought to at least toss out the penalties. Nobody should have to pay so much as a $1 fine for taking medicine his or her doctor has decided is medically necessary. As Republican health care reform opponents like to say, let's not allow government to get between patients and their doctors.
You are right that state and federal laws should be congruent, but there are negatives to legalization.
I have one patient who smokes it for his glaucoma, rejecting the traditional, less addictive treatments for his condition. Another was charged with possession and intent to distribute, and she wanted me to write a note for her after the event, saying I advised her to use marijuana for anxiety and depression. I refused, but you see the mess medical marijuana can create for doctors.
We at MD Safe Access are especially pleased that you recognize the critical need for safe, legal supply. Maryland's sick and dying residents are currently in great personal danger from both sides of the law. One member of our organization was robbed at gunpoint during a transaction for his medicine. Another has been arrested twice for possession, even though he had two doctors' recommendations. Until the law in Maryland is altered to clear up significant ambiguities and provide safe supply, our friends and neighbors will continue to be caught in the crossfire of the larger war on drugs.
The writer is member coordinator of MD Safe Access.