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May 31, 2006 - Niagara Gazette (NY)

Vanishing Medical Marijuana Gap

By Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writer on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When there is a big gap between the views of ordinary Americans on a public issue and the voting record of their elected representatives in Congress on that issue, something is wrong. In the national debate over the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the people and their representatives in Congress seem to be living on different planets. In New York, however, the gap has been closed, or nearly so.

Poll after poll show Americans, by a huge majority, want their doctors, not lawmakers, to decide whether or not marijuana should be used as a medicine. Today, however, federal laws prohibit physicians from prescribing marijuana for pain relief even where state and local laws say it is OK to do so. This has not always been the case.

"For most of American history, growing and using marijuana was legal under both federal law and the laws of individual states," according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Congress. The report goes to say: "From 1850 to the early 1940s, cannabis was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a recognized medicinal. (But) its decline in medicine was hastened by the development of aspirin, morphine, and other opium-derived drugs, all of which helped to replace marijuana in the treatment of pain."

The Polls

In 1999 a Gallup poll asked: "Suppose that on election day this year, you could vote on key issues as well as candidates. Please tell me, would you vote for or against making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering?" Response: 73 percent of the American people said they would vote for making marijuana legally available under those conditions.

In both 2003 and 2005, Gallup polls asked: "Would you favor or oppose making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering?" In 2003, 75 percent and in 2005, 78 percent of the people said they would favor giving doctors the legal right to decide when marijuana should be prescribed to ease suffering.

The National Gap

Apparently, members of Congress don't read the polls these days, nor do they care much about state laws. In 12 states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington -- laws already give doctors the power to decide whether or not to use marijuana to treat patients in pain.

In the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2005, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), introduced H.R. 2087, a bill "to provide for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with the laws of the various states," and to prohibit the federal government from stopping "an individual from obtaining and using marijuana from a prescription or recommendation by a physician for medical use." On May 13, the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, where it is stuck.

Since a federal bill allowing states to regulate the medical use of marijuana can't make it to the House floor for an up or down vote, an alternative strategy is to attach a medical marijuana amendment to a spending bill that will reach the House floor. On June 15, 2005, Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-NY) did just that and offered Amendment 272 to H.R. 2862. The amendment would have prohibited federal agencies from preventing the implementation of state laws that authorize the use of medical marijuana. The amendment was rejected on a 264 to 161 vote.

In other words, while 78 percent of the American people favor letting doctors (and states) decide this issue, only 38 percent of the House members favored a law supporting that policy. Nationally, that's a whopping 40 percent medical marijuana gap separating what the American people want and what their hard-of-hearing elected representatives deliver.

New York's Vanishing Gap

With 20 of 29, or 68 percent of the House members from New York voting in favor of Amendment 272, the state's lawmakers have shown a readiness to close the gap separating public opinion and public policy.

Niagara Falls area representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, a Democrat, voted for the amendment while Thomas M. Reynolds, a Republican, voted against it.

Nationally the wide gap remains, with all congressmen from South Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and Oklahoma voting against the amendment.

American democracy calls on lawmakers to be responsive to the common sense wisdom of ordinary citizens. Instead, some members of Congress from New York and elsewhere are standing in the way of existing state laws and the majority of Americans who want their physicians, not politicians, to decide if marijuana should be used to ease suffering in sick patients.

If these officials don't improve their hearing, voters might consider replacing them this coming November with people who have better listening skills.

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