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Medical Marijuana Fight Goes to the Supreme Court

FOUR YEARS after California voters approved the medical use of marijuana in defiance of federal drug laws, the pot-as-medicine controversy has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's high time a little judiciousness is applied to the debate over the medical value of cannabis sativa, a versatile weed used for centuries as a folk remedy and intoxicant.

So far, the argument has been dominated by federal anti-drug zealots who refuse to acknowledge any difference between the dangers of medical pot and such illegal hard drugs as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Last Monday, the high court agreed to decide whether the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative should be able to distribute marijuana as a "medical necessity" for patients who have no better alternative.

The court's decision, expected next June, is likely to determine whether patients will be able to take a few tokes legally in California and eight other states where similar laws have been passed.

In November 1996, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 215,

a landmark initiative that allowed patients -- with a doctor's approval -- to use, grow and possess pot, even though it is outlawed by federal law under any circumstances.

Prop. 215 was a sloppily written law that put the state in direct conflict with federal drug laws and the Clinton administration's hard-nosed anti-drug policy.

But since then, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have joined the grassroots movement to legalize pot as medicine.

Until a federal judge halted marijuana sales in October 1998, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative was a model of discretion and seriousness of purpose. The co-op required a membership card, evidence of illness and a doctor's recommendation.

And it seemed to work.

Jeffrey Jones, director of the Oakland co-op, says none of its 7,000 card- carrying members currently get pot there.

However, some 35 other low-profile California cannabis clubs continue to sell it quietly, including a dozen in the Bay Area.

The Oakland co-op is located in a tidy, downtown storefront shop at 1733 Broadway that now specializes in marijuana paraphernalia, hemp products, advice on marijuana cultivation and referrals to other cannabis clubs. Smoking pot in the co-op is forbidden.

Jones, 26, a defendant in the Supreme Court case, is a true believer in the efficacy of marijuana as a wonder drug useful in alleviating chronic pain and helpful in a wide variety of ailments, ranging from migraine headaches to glaucoma, cancer and AIDS.

He argues that cannabis has been used as a palliative for thousands of years and should be available to seriously ill patients to ease symptoms, stimulate appetites and give solace.

The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, after an 18-month review of scientific literature on marijuana, concluded last year that pot used as medicine can help ease pain and nausea and recommended further research.

The institute also reported no conclusive evidence that marijuana leads to harder drugs, contrary to drug-warrior claims.

Prestigious journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet and New Scientist have editorialized about the strong and persuasive evidence that marijuana works as medicine on an array of illnesses.

When the Supreme Court makes its ruling, the justices should allow marijuana to be added to California physicians' legal pharmacopoeia that includes all kinds of narcotics, sedatives, mood elevators, pain killers and psychoactives that can be dangerous if improperly used and illegal if not prescribed.

Medical marijuana should be treated like any other drug that has side effects and the potential for abuse.

Further research is obviously needed, but in the meantime it would be shameful for the justices to deny seriously sick people the benefits of pot merely because the Justice Department fears the legalization of pot for any reason "threatens the government's ability to enforce federal drug laws."

That is a fatuous argument that would deny effective medication to law- abiding patients who prefer to bear the agonies of their illnesses rather than break the law by buying illegal pot from a street dealer.

The Supreme Court should legalize marijuana as a prescription medicine. Like other useful drugs with potential side-effects, let doctors prescribe it when appropriate and allow the Oakland co-op and other cannabis clubs to sell it until a better way of controlling and distributing it is found.


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