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Jewish World Review May 24, 2001 / 2 Sivan, 5761

Jill "J.R." Labbe

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Consumer Reports

Can we have a rational discussion about marijuana? -- DARING to raise the issue of decriminalizing the possession of marijuana used to be a third rail of American politics: touch it and die.

But encouraging signs are emerging from various quarters showing that public attitudes may be changing, at least when it comes to the use of marijuana to relieve the debilitating side effects of some diseases.

At first blush, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week to prohibit a "medical necessity" defense for distributors of medical marijuana was a crushing blow to the suffering Americans who find comfort in smoking this all-natural reliever.

But the unanimous decision wasn't the knee-capper that it first appeared to be.

The court's 8-0 ruling (Justice Stephen Breyer didn't weigh in because his brother was the trial judge in the case) applies only to federal law and was focused almost exclusively on distribution issues. The case did not venture into the realm of a state's prerogative to allow patients to use medical marijuana with a doctor's approval.

Considering that almost 99 percent of marijuana arrests in this country are made by state and local police, how states approach this issue has far greater real-world impact on Americans than what the feds may or may not do.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws that remove criminal penalties for patients who grow, use and possess medical marijuana with their doctor's approval. Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington made the enlightened and compassionate change as a result of voter initiatives; the issue was placed on the ballot, and the people gave it a thumb's up. In Hawaii, the state Legislature actually mustered the courage to pass medical marijuana legislation, and Gov. Ben Cayetano signed it into law in June 2000.

The national debate over the decriminalization of medical marijuana is far from over. In some circles, it hasn't even begun because certain mentally time-warped politicians are too frightened to even broach the subject for fear of being viewed as radical-fringe.

It won't help the effort to bring a humane voice to this debate now that John P. Walters has been tapped to be the national drug czar. Walters has publicly aired Neanderthal views on the potential medicinal uses of marijuana.

Walters, who was a deputy to drug czars Bill Bennett and Bob Martinez from 1989 to 1993, testified in 1996 that he believed Congress should pull prescription privileges from any and all doctors who recommended medical marijuana for their patients.

Just great.

Maybe Walters has changed his tune to one less harsh in light of the study released in 1999 by the prestigious Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences. The report said that the compounds found in marijuana do have medicinal applications and are effective, for example, in the treatment of side effects from chemotherapy.

Medical marijuana isn't going to save anyone's life. It isn't going to kill anyone, either. But it can provide relief, albeit temporary, to people who are struggling to maintain some quality in their lives during their last days.

Opponents to the decriminalization of medical marijuana love to trot out the cliche "slippery slope" when cautioning against the idea. If we approve this, they warn, the next thing you know teens will be able to purchase cocaine over the counter.

Criminey. In reality, it's been a strenuous uphill push to raise the issue to reasoned debate. Can we please drop the hyperbole?

What are lawmakers afraid of? That terminally ill cancer patients will develop a smoker's hack? That someone with full-blown AIDS will become addicted? That it will be a gateway drug to harder stuff? G-d love them, they're dying what can be horrifically painful deaths. If marijuana helps relieve the nausea that prohibits them from keeping potentially life-prolonging drugs in their stomachs until they dissolve into the bloodstream, let them light up.

No one with a sliver of compassion would wish a disease as devastating as AIDS on another human being. But periodically, for just nanoseconds of time, one wonders how members of Congress and the various state legislatures might react if a family member or close friend were stricken with an illness with symptoms that could be alleviated by medical marijuana.

JWR contributor Jill "J.R." Labbe is senior editorial writer and columnist for the Star-Telegram . Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Jill "J.R." Labbe