Medical Marijuana

By Trebach, Arnold; Califano, Joseph A. | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Medical Marijuana


Trebach, Arnold, Califano, Joseph A., The World and I


It's Effective and Compassionate

by Arnold Trebach

A rare event occurred on Election Day last year. Arizonans and Californians rejected a key part of Washington's drug war: the ban on doctors' recommending to patients potentially helpful drugs like marijuana.

On November 5, nearly two out of three voters in Arizona supported Proposition 200 and 56 percent of California's voters passed Proposition 215. Both initiatives allow doctors to recommend marijuana for serious illnesses, including, but not limited to, relieving nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy, stimulating appetite for those with AIDS wasting syndrome, correcting a certain type of glaucoma that can cause blindness, and pain relief. California's Proposition 215 is limited to marijuana, but Arizona's Proposition 200 allows a doctor to recommend any Schedule drug (e.g., marijuana, heroin, LSD) as long as (1) there is scientific research supporting the recommendation and (2) a second doctor concurs.

Proposition 200 also reforms parts of the criminal justice system and provides resources for drug education. But it is important to note that both initiatives require a doctor to make his identity known so that he can be called upon to defend the recommendation in court. Because the drugs covered by these initiatives remain illegal under federal statutes, doctors risk their licenses and livelihoods by recommending these drugs to patients, even when no other medicine or treatment is effective.

DRUG WAR REVERSAL

Popular reversals in the drug war do not happen often, so prominent drug warriors quickly concluded that the voters in those states were tricked--by well-financed campaigns with slick TV ads--into supporting an otherwise unpopular policy idea: drug legalization. The White House drug policy director, former Gen. Barry McCaffrey, referred to the initiatives as "stalking-horses for legalization."

Yet there is a big difference between these initiatives, which are "medicalization" approaches, and legalization. The main difference is the order of magnitude. These initiatives will affect perhaps a few thousand patients, whereas legalization would make drugs available to tens of millions of adults in a regulated market, much like that for alcohol. That distinction, however, did not prevent pundits from smearing the initiatives as something they are not.

Following the election, New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal leveled the charge of a legalization conspiracy in a column titled "While America Slept." Rosenthal predicted that drug policy reformers "will quickly make a mockery of the national consensus against drugs through the technique of heavily financed state-by-state creeping legalization." Rosenthal directed his ire at one campaign donor in particular, investment adviser and philanthropist George Soros, who donated nearly a million dollars to the state initiatives.

Although Soros has said that he opposes full legalization but supports an open debate, Rosenthal's label stuck with both conservatives and liberals. On the right, former Bush administration drug czar William Bennett called Soros the "sugar daddy to the drug legalization movement"; on the left, former Carter cabinet official Joseph Califano called Soros "the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization."

The similarity of their characterizations in telling. Neither political party has contributed anything like unique thinking to drug policy in decades. Bennett and Califano have come to personify the atrophied discussion on drug policy in this country, and, as a result, voters are frustrated with our country's one-dimensional approach.

Despite allegations of a legalization conspiracy, the truth is that these initiatives began at the local level in each state. No one donor or national reform organization masterminded these campaigns. Furthermore, the propositions were not passed because of "deceptive" advertising.

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