When California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996 and Prop 36 last year, they showed their acceptance of medicinal marijuana and endorsed drug treatment over incarceration. The state has forged a new direction in the war on drugs; however, the federal government has obstinately refused to alter its conservative stance. And we all know what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object – the U.S. Supreme Court must decide the outcome.
Prop 215, which legalizes the use of medical marijuana, was a bold move by Californian voters. This proposition effectively thumbed its nose at the Controlled Substances Act 1970 (CSA), which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin and ecstasy. Schedule I drugs are deemed to have no medicinal value and cannot be prescribed by a doctor. By contrast, Schedule II drugs – opium, cocaine and methamphetamines – have accepted medical uses and may be prescribed by a physician. Unfortunately, Prop 215 stands in direct opposition to the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy on Schedule I drugs.
The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether the federal prohibition on pot trumps a state’s right to regulate issues of health and safety. The high court’s ruling will affect not only California’s legislation, but also similar laws passed in eight other states. At present in California, physicians can recommend marijuana to patients who suffer from chronic pain. Cannabis cooperatives are the primary suppliers of medical pot, although many counties allow patients to grow a limited number of their own plants. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative is at the center of this legal controversy.
Federal prosecutors sued the club for breaching the CSA. The case was pushed all the way up to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the justices ruled that federal law was not an absolute barrier if the cannabis clubs were only supplying people with a “medical necessity.” However, the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which appears set to overturn it. Comments made by the Court’s conservative justices indicate that they see no legal basis for giving marijuana to gravely ill patients and that “medical necessity” is no defense to the CSA.
It is unclear what effect the Supreme Court’s ruling will have on the use of medical marijuana. Even if these suppliers are shut down, jurors in California are likely to be sympathetic to gravely ill patients who seek out marijuana as a last resort. Displeasure with the fed’s approach to the drug war is gaining momentum in California and across the country. With mounting evidence showing the medical efficacy of pot – including a 1999 study commissioned by the U.S. drug czar, which concluded that marijuana eases pain and nausea in cancer patients – it is appropriate for the drug to be rescheduled in the CSA.
Efforts to reclassify marijuana are being stifled by a lack of support from large pharmaceutical companies. Drug companies cannot patent marijuana and, therefore, do not stand to gain anything from lobbying for its rescheduling. In fact, they will lose substantial profits if marijuana is prescribed to relieve symptoms that are currently treated with a veritable cocktail of prescription medication. Additionally, rescheduling falls under the discretion of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft – enough said.
Unfortunately, the federal government and law enforcement agencies are deaf, blind and dumb to criticism of the drug war. The California Narcotics Officers Association (CNOA) admits that illegal drug use continues to rise, and blames the medical marijuana movement for teaching our youth that pot is harmless. The CNOA argues that the medical use of pot is merely masking a legalization effort driven by drug users who want to escape the long arm of the law. Presumably, these comments are not directed at the California Medical Association or at California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, both supporters of the compassionate use of marijuana.
The demonization of drugs has done nothing to reduce their use. If the federal government continues to adopt a wholly irrational attitude toward certain substances, they will be persecuting those who need its help the most. As a society, we cannot allow the gravely ill to fall victim to such a futile war on drugs.