Moment of Truth for Medical Marijuana


On May 22, the state-federal conflict over medical marijuana heated up, as Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich defied White House pressure and became the first Republican governor to sign a medical marijuana bill. Meanwhile, on June 4, a federal court in California is scheduled to sentence Ed Rosenthal to at least five years in federal prison for the crime of providing medical marijuana to seriously ill people.

Rosenthal was convicted on January 31 of growing marijuana, but he was convicted by a jury that heard only half the story. When the jurors discovered the crucial facts that had been withheld from them, half of them took the extraordinary step of publicly renouncing their own verdict and apologizing to the man they had just convicted.

Juror Marney Craig wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, "Rosenthal's attorneys were not allowed to tell us the critical facts: He grew marijuana for use by people suffering from cancer, AIDS and other horrible diseases whose physicians had recommended it. ... I helped send a man to prison who does not belong there."

The evidence for marijuana's medical usefulness grows every day. Just this May, the esteemed medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, stated that marijuana's active components "inhibit pain in virtually every experimental pain paradigm" and suggested that marijuana might become "the aspirin of the 21st century."

The American public overwhelmingly supports protecting medical marijuana patients -- 80 percent, according to a CNN/Time poll released in November. By signing the medical marijuana bill, Gov. Ehrlich placed himself squarely in the American mainstream.

The response thus far from White House Drug Czar John Walters is simply to lie -- making absurd statements comparing medical marijuana to "medicinal crack."

Walters clings to the federal Controlled Substances Act, enacted back in 1970, which arbitrarily and wrongly declared marijuana to be without medical value. Because of this outdated law, federal courts -- like the one that tried Ed Rosenthal -- bar any discussion of medical use.

Think about this: If you shoot your neighbor, you are allowed to explain why. Did you shoot in self-defense or to protect someone else from harm? Motivation is often the key to guilt or innocence.

As Marney Craig put it, "All Ed Rosenthal did was grow some plants, but he wasn't allowed to tell us why."

This is crazy, but Congress can fix it. A bipartisan coalition of U.S. House members has introduced the Truth in Trials Act (H.R. 1717). This bill would remove the federal gag placed on medical marijuana defendants in states that have chosen to allow medical use. The bill would let seriously ill patients or people assisting them explain that they were acting to relieve suffering in a manner permitted by state law, allowing them to avoid federal prison if the jury finds their evidence persuasive.

This is a modest bill, one that would have no effect at all in states that have not chosen to legalize medical marijuana. In the states that have done so, juries would be able to hear the truth. Defendants facing federal prison for trying to help the sick could tell their stories without censorship.

It's too late to help Ed Rosenthal, who faces a minimum of five years -- and possibly as many as 40 years -- in federal prison. But it's not too late to help others.

This is an issue of basic fairness. Congress should pass the Truth in Trials Act without delay. And John Walters needs to start telling the truth or find another job.

Robert Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project ( in Washington, D.C., which led the lobbying effort for the Maryland medical marijuana bill.

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