Medicine for the Sick

The Federal Government Should End Its Misguided War on Marijuana

Mr. Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

The Drug War: seldom has so much harm been done to so many for so little purpose. Among the most tragic victims are the sick and terminally ill who desire marijuana to ease their pain. Consider Todd McCormick. Though only 26, he suffered through ten bouts with cancer, beginning at the age of two. He first smoked marijuana to relieve the dizziness and nausea caused by his treatment for a chest tumor. Now cancer-free, he still endures constant back, hip, and neck pain. Without marijuana he couldn’t even walk, he explains. But despite a prescription from a Dutch physician, he was arrested in 1995 for marijuana possession and faced up to 30 years in prison before charges were dropped.

The first petition to shift marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, like morphine, which would allow it to be prescribed, was filed in 1972. The Drug Enforcement Administration wouldn’t consider the idea until a federal court order in 1986. Two years later an agency hearing examiner endorsed the proposal. The DEA again refused to act. In its eyes, the desperately ill were no different than common criminals.

At least then there was a small escape hatch: 30 patients received marijuana from the federal government. But in 1991 the Department of Health and Human Services canceled the program. “If it’s perceived that the Public Health Service is going around giving marijuana to folks, there would be a perception that this stuff can’t be so bad,” explained one official. It’s surprising the government tolerates the use of morphine in hospitals.

HHS officials said they would instead provide Marinol, a synthetic form of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient. But those suffering from AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma say that Marinol isn’t as effective. Explained Barbara Jencks, who before her death from AIDS was arrested for using marijuana to combat AZT-induced nausea, “I’ve got to smoke marijuana. I’ve got to, or I’ll die.” Many others say essentially the same thing. Indeed, why else would people like Todd McCormick risk arrest?

Doctors also favor the medicinal use of marijuana. In one survey more than 70 percent of American cancer specialists said they would prescribe marijuana if it were legal; 44 percent said they had urged patients to break the law if necessary to acquire the drug. The British Medical Association found that nearly 70 percent of physicians believed marijuana should be available for therapeutic use.

Even President Bush’s Office of Drug Control Policy criticized HHS when it closed the medicinal marijuana program. Deputy Director Herbert Kleber termed the initiative a “compassionate” option for the very ill. Another senior staffer, Ingrid Kolb, complained that “for HHS to treat this matter as just another bureaucratic decision is unconscionable and, to me, shows an intolerable lack of compassion.” HHS remained unmoved. Nothing changed when President Bill Clinton took office, even though his Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, endorsed making marijuana available to the seriously ill.

Indeed, last fall the administration opposed ballot initiatives in Arizona and California to legalize medicinal use of marijuana. Voters ignored the President, so the administration is now working to block the laws. Only a recent court injunction currently prevents the DEA from prosecuting doctors who recommend pot and stripping them of their right to prescribe pharmaceuticals. Even more bizarre are threats to block the nomination of Massachusetts Governor William Weld as ambassador to Mexico because he favors allowing the medicinal use of marijuana.

The fact that so many officials are working so hard to pre-empt such limited state initiatives demonstrates a hard truth: The Drug War has failed. The federal government has been fighting the drug war for decades. The result? Adolescent drug use is rising. In 1995 more than one-third of high school seniors said they had used pot the previous year, up from 22 percent in 1992.

So what does Washington want to do now? Escalate the drug war. Eric Holder, now Deputy Attorney General, advocated tougher penalties for marijuana offenses when he served as the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. “Marijuana violence is increasing. We need to nip it in the bud,” claimed Mr. Holder.

Illegal Markets Spawn Crime

Unfortunately, new enforcement initiatives will only worsen the problem. The crime surrounding marijuana that Holder complains of results not so much from drug use, but from drug prohibition. No one argues that pot is crimogenic. People don’t smoke marijuana and then commit crimes.

Rather, killings and robberies inevitably accompany illegal markets. Dealers fight over turf; sellers and customers rob one another. This was evident during Prohibition—the ban on alcohol could not have been better designed to benefit organized crime. Similarly, marijuana and opium have been legal in America for more years than they have been prohibited. Only after the government forbid their sale earlier this century did crime envelop them.

A different argument is made by the DEA’s Peter Gruden. The marijuana being sold today, he warns, is far more potent than that available a decade or two ago. However, this, too, is a result of prohibition. It has always been easier to find and confiscate marijuana, a bulkier substance, than drugs like cocaine and heroin. Thus, dealers have had a continuing incentive to produce a more compact, easily concealable version of the drug. This incentive was intensified by the government’s increasing interdiction of shipments from Mexico and discovery of outdoor plots in America. Production shifted indoors to hydroponic (water-based) cultivation, which yields more concentrated marijuana.

Finally, Gruden complains that kids increasingly deal pot, with lookouts as young as 11. This has nothing to do with marijuana as such, however: in the 1980s Washington, D.C., found itself not only arresting a far higher number of juveniles for drug offenses, but also arresting a far higher percentage for trafficking. This is also a result of drugs being illegal: drugs are marketed by criminals, who have no compunction about involving kids, who in turn know that they will receive lesser penalties if they are caught. Notably, children don’t wear beepers around school selling cigarettes and beer. The drug laws are as dangerous as drugs to kids.

Upping the penalties for marijuana offenses and imposing minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders would only increase the incentive to rely on kids. And it wouldn’t end drug abuse. Nationally there were nearly 600,000 arrests in 1995 for marijuana, over 80 percent of them—an incredible half million—for possession alone. Pot arrests are up 50 percent over the Bush years. Someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 54 seconds in America.

Sending more people to jail would, however, further overwhelm a bulging prison system that already holds three times as many prisoners as in the early 1980s. The result would likely be rising pressure for the premature release of violent criminals around the nation. Today many rapists and murderers spend less time in prison than do drug offenders.

Turning drug use, at base a moral and spiritual problem, into a criminal crusade hasn’t worked. Despite 10.5 million arrests for pot offenses between 1965 and 1995, more than 60 million Americans have used marijuana. As the police have collared even more people during the 1990s, drug use by children has risen. Arresting and jailing even more people wouldn’t yield better results.

It’s time to change course. People shouldn’t smoke marijuana, but then, they shouldn’t smoke cigarettes either. That doesn’t mean the answer is prohibition. Instead of reinforcing the failed policies of the past, the federal government should end its misguided war on marijuana, starting with its attack on the suffering and dying.

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