Reefer madness


ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft's cruel crusade against the medical use of marijuana backfired last week.

In an extraordinary display that should thoroughly discredit the endeavor, federal jurors in California held a press conference to apologize to the man they had just convicted of cultivating pot - an offense with a mandatory five-year prison sentence. Jurors were outraged to discover after the trial that the defendant, Ed Rosenthal, was growing medical cannabis for the city of Oakland for use by critically ill patients under California's medical marijuana law.

The judge wouldn't allow that defense to be raised because federal law doesn't permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Mr. Ashcroft is determined to prevent the states from permitting it, either.

Even so, several of the jurors said if they had known Mr. Rosenthal was acting as an agent of the city - and was not the drug trafficker that federal prosecutors described - they would have acquitted him.

That's because those jurors and most Americans have a lot more compassion and a lot more sense that Mr. Ashcroft. He's so trapped in the '70s with his anti-pot paranoia he doesn't realize the nation and even the drug culture have passed him by.

Heroin, crack cocaine and a wide variety of other narcotics remain a terrible danger, particular to young people. Authorities at every level are doing their best - as well they should - to combat the illegal use and trafficking of these life-destroying drugs.

But Americans are widely and increasingly tolerant of marijuana, an herb that has been used for medical purposes for thousands of years and was legally prescribed in this country until 1937. Most don't think casual marijuana use should be punished by more than a fine; 40 percent would legalize it in small amounts, according to a Time/CNN poll taken last fall.

There's almost no dispute, however, about whether patients with AIDS, cancer or other devastating ailments should be permitted whatever relief marijuana can bring by easing pain and boosting appetite. Eight out of 10 Americans think marijuana should once again be legal with a doctor's prescription, the poll showed.

With that much popular support, state and local governments are giving the raspberries to the feds and making marijuana available to critically ill patients on their own. Eight states have acted so far; Maryland looks likely this year to join them.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing a bill that would allow patients approved by the state's medical licensing board to grow marijuana plants for personal use. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was greatly affected by watching a family member waste away from cancer, says he is inclined to support the measure.

If federal authorities were more enlightened, patients could get their pot prescriptions from pharmacies instead of worrying about the FBI raiding their backyard plots.

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