More MS news articles for Nov 2001

Fighting Drugs a Wasted Effort

Published on Monday, November 19, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
by Salim Muwakkil
Our newly urgent need for collective security has revealed deficiencies in many of our public institutions. The U.S. Postal Service, our woeful system of public health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and many other agencies charged with serving public needs are themselves in need of assistance. The FBI has even asked the public for help in tracking down the anthrax terrorists.

Despite the need to better utilize our national resources for this new war on terrorism, we still are squandering them in the old war on drugs.

Last month, agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, a source of marijuana for AIDS patients, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis sufferers, or any other patient with a doctor's prescription for medicinal marijuana. Californians voted overwhelmingly to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996.

And California wasn't the only state to take such a stance in favor of medical marijuana. Since 1996, eight other states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing marijuana to be used medicinally. Congress has prevented D.C.'s initiative from taking effect and Arizona's attempt has stalled. In a poll taken by the Pew Research Center in March, 73 percent of Americans said they favored medical use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription.

But all of those efforts were called into question this spring when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the argument of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club that medical necessity trumped a federal injunction that had shut it down. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared federal laws prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of marijuana take precedence over a patient's medical need for the drug.

While the top court's ruling didn't exactly render the states' measures moot, it did provide federal prosecutors with potent legal ammunition to use against the marijuana centers that were beginning to proliferate.

According to The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento, Calif., the feds began their assault on medical marijuana by uprooting a marijuana garden run by the Los Angeles club and seizing 342 plants. Buyers' clubs typically cultivate their own marijuana crops to avoid purchasing the drug on the black market. Federal agents then raided the club and confiscated the records of the doctors who recommended marijuana treatment.

What makes this federal action even more perplexing is the claim by DEA chief Asa Hutchinson that his agency is being stretched thin by the war on terrorism. In a Nov. 6 news conference, Hutchinson said the war against terrorism is diverting agents, patrol boats and other resources from the war on drugs. "It's a battle of resources right now," he told the assembled journalists.

Hutchinson apparently is doing that by deploying DEA agents to prevent nearly 1,000 people with serious illnesses from seeking relief from a drug they insist provides it.

And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests marijuana effectively reduces the nausea of chemotherapy and reverses the "wasting syndrome" of people with AIDS. For example, clinical trials in England, where the British parliament currently is considering legalizing cannabis, have revealed that "80 percent of those taking part [in the study] have derived more benefit from cannabis than from any other drug, with many describing it as `miraculous'," reported the Nov. 4 edition of The (London) Observer.

Hutchinson's action is strongly supported, perhaps even prodded, by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who promised during his confirmation hearings to hold his ideological zeal in abeyance and apply the law objectively after assuming office. Instead, Ashcroft is betraying California's voters with heavy-handed federal attacks on relief-seeking AIDS patients and multiple sclerosis victims. He also has gone after Oregon's citizens, who passed a physician-assisted suicide initiative not once, but twice.

By disregarding both the wishes of the public and the wisdom of science, Hutchinson and Ashcroft are fulfilling the worst predictions of the Bush administration's critics. These two appointees of our compassionate conservative president are showing very little compassion to those seeking hard-won relief from pain and torment.

Moreover, the crusade against medical marijuana is the least justifiable aspect of an already ridiculous war on drugs. Diverting resources from the real war just to stop people from getting prescriptions of marijuana adds a bit of irony to the absurdity.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune