Allow medical marijuana use


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has spoken. Federal anti-drug laws trump state laws that allow patients to have marijuana when their doctors recommend it.

That's sad news to Kathleen Marie "Kitty" Tucker, a 57-year-old lawyer and mother who favors the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use.

She could use some.

Since 1987 she has suffered from migraines and fibromyalgia, a chronic muscle pain disorder, too severe to let her work outside her suburban Maryland home.

She's been using such legal drugs as Marinol, a synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana. But none relieve her symptoms as well -- and with as few side effects -- as smoking marijuana used to, she says.

She knows because she used to grow her own marijuana in the basement of her family home in Takoma Park, a Washington suburb.

But, in 1999, her then-16-year-old daughter, in an apparent burst of teen rage, told the local police about mommy's indoor garden.

Weeks later, the charges were dropped. But, by then, Ms. Tucker's husband, Robert Alvarez, had lost his job as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Energy Department, and the family had been put through an emotional and legal wringer.

Ms. Tucker's hopes for legal pot evaporated along with those of numerous other sufferers May 14 when the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 against marijuana-supplying co-ops in California. Federal law does not allow the distribution of marijuana even to people whose doctors recommend it to alleviate symptoms of serious illness, the court ruled.

That ruling dealt a setback, if not a definitive blow, to the movement that, so far, has led to the legalization of medical marijuana in eight states plus the District of Columbia.

Sure, you can legalize medicinal marijuana all you want, the high court told the voters and legislators, but that doesn't mean Washington has to let it happen.

"It is very disappointing to see our democracy kicked away," Ms. Tucker said in a voice that sounded wracked with pain.

Yes, "kicked away" is a good way to describe the way marijuana, even for legitimate relief of illness, has become a political football. Poll after poll tends to show that most people support doctor-approved medicinal use of marijuana.

Yet, the issue has failed with most Washington politicians and most state legislatures, except for Hawaii. It is as if the issue has nothing to do with real science or even real people anymore, just politics and posturing.

Nobody ever lost an election by promising to be "tough" on drugs, even when it means being unnecessarily tough on the sick.

Justice Clarence Thomas, author of the high court's ruling, offered a good example. When he cited the federal statute that says marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use," he was expressing a political view, not a scientific one.

Lawmakers could simply look at the 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. It confirmed the effectiveness of marijuana's active components in treating pain, nausea and the anorexic wasting syndrome associated with AIDS.

The report did caution against smoking marijuana for more than six months. After all, smoking anything is hazardous to your health. Unfortunately, the study did not discuss vaporizers, a popular non-smoking alternative in the California marijuana clubs that were parties in the Supreme Court case.

So more research needs to be done. Both sides of the debate can agree on that. Yet, Washington politicians have been extremely reluctant to grant government-approved marijuana for research. So, new research gets stuck in a catch-22: The politicians say we can't legalize marijuana because there's not enough research; then they don't fund the research. How convenient.

Opponents of legalization say that prosecutors probably won't spend much time or money going after sick patients. They're probably right. It wouldn't be worth it. Juries would be reluctant to convict, especially in a state or town that voted overwhelmingly for legalization.

But, as Kitty Tucker's case shows, you don't have to be prosecuted after a drug arrest to be punished by it.

First the punishment, then -- guess what? No trial. That's what happens when politicians care less about people than they do about posturing.

During his presidential campaign, President Bush said he opposed legalizing medical marijuana in Texas but thought the federal government should leave the question up to the states. That's a campaign promise he should keep.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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