MORRIS: Medical Marijuana: The State vs. the People

Congress and the President preach "devolution", the return of power to local and state governments. But whenever the people exercise power in a way that displeases Congress and the President, they practice preemption and strip power from the people. The conflict over the medical use of marijuana makes that the conflict between rhetoric and reality chillingly clear.During the past 25 years the American people have tried every possible avenue for redress on this issue only to find themselves repeatedly thwarted, not by their neighbors or by local or state governments but by the federal government.The announcement by the President that he will use the vast powers of the federal government to stop Arizonans and Californians from using marijuana to reduce pain and suffering sets up one of the most dangerous confrontations between the state and its people in recent American history.Here's the background. For hundreds of years marijuana has been used as a medicine. In 1970 Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana and heroin were placed in Schedule I. That meant they could not be prescribed by doctors. In 1972 the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws(NORML) petitioned the DEA to move marijuana to Schedule II so that it could be prescribed. The DEA refused to launch an investigation. NORML went to court. The court ordered the DEA to reconsider. DEA again refused. NORML went back to court. Finally, in 1986 the DEA initiated an investigation.In l988, after two years of gathering evidence and listening to dozens of medical and scientific experts DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young issued his 70 page decision. "(M)arijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving distress of great numbers of ill people...It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record."The DEA rejected Judge Young's recommendation. Denied at the federal level, people began to work at the local and state levels. In 1991, 80 percent of the voters in San Francisco approved a local medical marijuana initiative. With the support of local politicians and the consent of local police, a Cannabis Buyers Club began to dispense marijuana to terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients.Twice the California legislature by wide margins passed bills to allow pot by prescription. Twice the Governor vetoed the bills. In 1996 Governor Wilson sent state troops into San Francisco to close down the Cannabis Buyers Club.Thwarted by the Governor, the citizens of California gathered sufficient signatures to put the question of medical marijuana on the ballot. This past November liberal California approved that initiative. Conservative Arizona approved a similar measure by an even wider margin. Thirty five other states have enacted legislation urging the medical use of marijuana.Now the President promises to overrule the will of the people. He will strip doctors who recommend marijuana of their ability to practice medicine. He will use federal troops to arrest doctors and patients who abide by the laws of California and Arizona.White House Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey scoffs, "American medicine has gone way beyond smoking dope to manage pain". The personal experiences of thousands of medical personnel and their patients contradict his glib comment. Marijuana has treated multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. It has helped epileptics and restored the appetite of AIDS patients and cancer patients.According to Judge Young, "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, published by one of the world's most reputable pharmaceutical companies asserts, "Although many dangers of marijuana are frequently cited, there is little evidence of biological damage, even among relatively heavy users."The feds say there are no scientific studies on the medical effectiveness of marijuana. What they fail to tell us is that the federal government is the only legal source of marijuana for clinical research. And since the mid 1980s the National Institute on Drug Abuse has blocked all scientific research in this area.Back in the 1970s the DEA could have avoided the current situation by making marijuana a Schedule II drug and establishing strict controls for its use. It chose not to do so. The result is legislation by initiative, a messier process to be sure, but still workable if the feds cooperate.During the recent campaign, Bob Dole declared his intention to give "power to the people". Bill Clinton and much of the Democratic and Republican parties insist on their devotion to the principle of "devolution". Medical marijuana tests their rhetorical commitment.After an extensive and open debate, the citizens of California and Arizona made a democratic decision. By overruling their decision, the President threatens to increase cynicism to the point of unrest. San Franciscans were angry but passive when state troops invaded their community last year because a statewide initiative was on the ballot. The response may not be as benign if federal troops invade Phoenix and Tucson to arrest doctors and patients after the people have spoken.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.