The Hospice Raid and the War on Drugs

The war on drugs keeps getting bigger and meaner.

Just when you think the tide is beginning to turn, someone in charge takes it a step further.

Last week, DEA agents armed with automatic weapons raided a hospice on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, California, because it grew and used marijuana for its patients, most of them terminally ill. The founder and director, Valerie Corral, who uses marijuana herself to control debilitating seizures as a result of head trauma following a 1973 car accident, was taken away in her pajamas. Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic patient suffering from postpolio syndrome, was told to stand up and then was handcuffed in bed when she could not. All the plants were destroyed.

Of all the medical marijuana clubs, this was the one most true to the hospice spirit. It was a collective, run on a nonprofit basis. Valerie and her husband had created a place that brought peace, love and some measure of freedom from pain to those who came. Like the Brompton Cocktails found in British hospices, which can contain heroin or morphine, cocaine, alcohol and other pharmaceutical ingredients, the medicine was unconventional but effective.

Valerie's hospice was legal under California law, a product of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative in which 56 percent of voters endorsed the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. She was and is a member of Attorney General Bill Lockyer's 1999 medical marijuana policy task force. Her hospice was run openly with cooperation from state and local authorities.

The DEA's raid, and the clear directive from the Bush administration and its attorney general to assault and close this facility and others, is a travesty of justice -- one that did much to terrorize American citizens and absolutely nothing to protect or improve their health, welfare or safety.

More than two-thirds of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for medical purposes. Medical marijuana initiatives have won in all eight states where they have been on the ballot, and would likely win in all but a handful. The Canadian government is taking steps to make marijuana available to patients north of our border.

Federal drug policy now lies in the hands of those who might best be described as the John Birchers of the drug war. Like the Southern racists who blocked civil rights reforms in the 1950s and 1960s, today's drug war politicians are out of step with the public, but they don't care. They're on their own crusade, one in which marijuana is as sinful as miscegenation was to the Southern racists or homosexuality is to today's religious fundamentalists.

They're also practitioners of the big lie. "On the face of it," says John Walters, "the idea that desperately sick people could be helped by smoking an intoxicating weed seems ... medieval. It is, in fact, absurd." Never mind thousands of reports by patients and doctors, dozens of studies and the National Academy of Sciences' conclusion that marijuana is therapeutically effective for a number of painful, chronic and terminal medical conditions for which pharmaceutical drugs are often ineffective or introduce negative side effects.

The hundreds of thousands of Americans who use marijuana for medical reasons, and the doctors who care for them, deserve a hearing in which they can defend their use of this unconventional medicine. They deserve the opportunity to give sworn testimony, and to confront the sworn testimony of those who persecute them. That's a job for Congress.

The raid on the Santa Cruz medical marijuana facility was, of course, about more than marijuana. It's part and parcel of the same insanity that drives the bigger war on drugs -- one that now incarcerates more people for drug law violations in the United States than all of western Europe (with a much larger population) incarcerates for everything; one that prefers to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars rather than make sterile syringes legally available to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.

More than that, it provides insight into the potential abuse of police power in another war without end on which we have now enbarked. The attorney general of the United States ordered a raid on a medical marijuana hospice not because he had to, but because he possessed both the will and the power to do so. A Congress and a country preoccupied with many other concerns barely noticed.

Is the Santa Cruz raid, and more generally the war on drugs, a preview of what lies ahead in the war on terrorism? Is the future one in which increasingly empowered and emboldened federal police agencies intimidate, arrest and even terrorize not just those who pose true threats to security but also those who challenge little more than the moralistic convictions and political prejudices of power holders in the nation's capital?

I live for the day when our children will look back on the drug wars of today the way we now look back on Jim Crow and the Palmer raids after the First World War, the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, and the McCarthyite persecutions of the 1950s. That is my moral crusade, and one shared by more and more other Americans as well.

Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.


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