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June 13, 2005 - The Sentinel And Enterprise (MA)

Column: Court Sends Feds To Prey On The Sick

By Bill Press, political commentator and author of "Bush Must Go." (

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Expect pigs to whistle, fish to walk or cows to fly. Clarence Thomas finally got one thing right.

And not only Justice Thomas, but also Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

In one of its worst decisions since interrupting the Florida vote count and handing the White House to George W. Bush in 2000, the Supreme Court has upheld the power of federal agents to harass, arrest and prosecute sick people who, with the support of their doctor, get relief from pain and suffering by sucking on a joint.

Only Justices Thomas, Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor were willing to stand up to the drug police and stand up for common sense.

Not to mention compassion.

Now, before you accuse me of defending every pothead in America, an important distinction. This ruling has nothing to do with recreational marijuana. Under today's drug laws, such use remains illegal in every state.

Wrongly, I believe. Having lived in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury during the late '60s, I can tell you from my own experience that smoking a joint does not always lead to more dangerous drugs.

Grass is less harmful than alcohol.

I support decriminalization of marijuana, across the board.

But that's another debate, another time.

The Supreme Court decision deals with medical marijuana only. Technically, the six justices who ruled against medical marijuana have the law on their side. The Controlled Substances Act - legal foundation for the long, costly and highly ineffective war on drugs - does, indeed, give the federal government the power to make drug arrests anytime, anywhere.

But simply upholding the law begs the important questions: Is this a proper role for the federal government? Shouldn't this be left up to the states?

And are there no exceptions to the blanket prohibition?

States, in fact, have taken the lead on the issue of medical marijuana.

In 39 states, it's still illegal.

But 10 states, both red and blue -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- now allow patients who suffer from debilitating illnesses to use marijuana as a pain reliever.

And Maryland says you may get arrested for possession, but if you prove a medical purpose, you face a maximum $100 fine. So what's the big deal? Is the fact that an estimated 115,000 sick people in 11 states take marijuana to ease their suffering worth unleashing the U.S. drug police?

Consider: The border with Mexico leaks like a sieve.

Boatloads of drugs filtered through the Caribbean arrive in Florida every day. Crack cocaine's for sale on every big-city street corner.

And despite $22 billion spent so far in the war on drugs in 2005 alone, the number of Americans using illicit drugs remains as high as ever. Surely federal narcs have more important priorities than arresting a 72-year-old grandmother in the mountains of Montana whose eyesight is improved by smoking one or two joints a day. And that's what is so maddening about the Supreme Court decision.

Users of medical marijuana are just sick. They are not criminals.

They are people like Colorado's Dana May, father of three, who's been on disability for 10 years because of reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

Or California's Angel McClary Raich, who suffers from multiple illnesses, including chronic wasting syndrome.

They are Americans with cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or epilepsy, many of whom have no appetite or can't eat without throwing up. Medical marijuana patients are real people, experiencing real pain, who get real relief from cannabis.

Raich spoke for them all when she told the New York Times: "We are not being disobedient. We are just using this medicine because it saves our lives." It is cruel and heartless to deny them a harmless way to mitigate their suffering.

Ironically, despite the Supreme Court's ruling, seven lucky Americans will continue to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, with no fear of the law. Why? Because they get their grass from the government. It's grown at the University of Mississippi.

And, under a federal program in place since 1978, those seven patients get 300 joints a month from the Food and Drug Administration itself. In other words, smoking pot's OK if the federal government grows it for you. But if a doctor prescribes it, you could be arrested and thrown into prison. Don't tell me our drug laws are not insane.

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