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An Anniversary That Calls for Action

Congress ought to ensure that what happened to Ed Rosenthal one year ago should never happen again.
 
 
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One year ago, on June 4, 2003, something remarkable happened in a California courtroom: A judge who could have sentenced the defendant in front of him to 40 years in federal prison instead heeded the pleas of the jurors who had convicted the man, who said that their own verdict was wrong. The judge let the man walk free, sentenced only to time already served, and a tragic injustice was averted.

Still, Ed Rosenthal -- who was simply obeying the laws of his state and trying to help sick people -- left that courthouse a convicted felon. Congress must make sure that such an injustice never happens again.

Eight states allow seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana legally, and in a matter of days Vermont will become the ninth. These laws have given a measure of comfort to tens of thousands of patients battling cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other horrific illnesses. But the federal government refuses to accept these laws and continues to wage a bizarre and cruel war on the sick.

Federal agents have stormed into homes and businesses, arresting sick people and their caregivers. In one particularly grotesque raid, Drug Enforcement Administration agents pointed automatic rifles at the head of Suzanne Pfeil, paralyzed from the after -- effects of polio, demanding that she stand -- and when she couldn't, they handcuffed her to her bed.

Congress will soon have an opportunity to stop this madness by passing what is called the Hinchey/Rohrabacher amendment. This measure, to be introduced by a New York Democrat and a conservative California Republican during consideration of the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill, would prevent the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. It would end the DEA's raids on medical marijuana patients and caregivers following state law. It would not prevent the DEA from arresting individuals who are involved in marijuana-related activities unconnected to medical use.

Last year, 152 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for this sensible, humane proposal -- an impressive start, but not nearly good enough. It will take 66 more votes for the House to pass this amendment.

Those votes shouldn't be hard to come by, since a huge majority of Americans supports medical marijuana. According to a Time/CNN poll taken in October 2002, 80 percent of the American people "think adults should be able to use marijuana legally for medical purposes." The public understands that it is cruel and pointless to criminalize people battling terrible illnesses for trying to relieve some of their suffering.

Support for protecting medical marijuana patients continues to grow in America's public health community. At its 2003 annual meeting, the 2.6 million member American Nurses Association adopted a resolution supporting medical marijuana, calling for "legislation to remove criminal penalties including arrest and imprisonment for bona fide patients." Other groups taking a similar stand in recent months include the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the Rhode Island Medical Society, as well as the United Methodist Church.

These groups join an impressive list of organizations supporting legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.

The federal government has been consistently hostile to medical marijuana, yet a federally funded study concluded that marijuana is an effective medicine. According to the 1999 National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine's report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, "Nausea, appetite loss, pain, and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana."

The experts and the public agree: It makes no sense to subject people fighting for their lives to arrest and jail just because they and their doctor find that medical marijuana provides relief when standard medicines fail. It is time for Congress to stop this madness, now.

Steve Fox is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.