WITH SOME NOTABLE exceptions, the drug-legalization crowd tends to be dominated by those for whom easy access to narcotics is less a philosophical imperative than a personal preference. They want to end the war on drugs only because they'd rather smoke the peace pipe.
And yet, when it comes to the issue of medical marijuana, it's the anti-drug absolutists who sound like they've just said yes. How else to explain the Clinton-Gore administration's adamant refusal to allow AIDS patients, cancer victims and other sufferers to alleviate their illness with doctor-recommended medicinal marijuana?
As Al Gore's campaign rushes to the courts, purportedly in the name of democracy and states' rights, the Clinton-Gore administration also rushes to the courts -- seeking to thwart democracy and quash states' rights. It's pushing to kill Proposition 215, the California initiative legalizing medical marijuana that 65 percent of the state's voters backed in 1996.
Gore might like to wax on about how "a vote is not just a piece of paper, a vote is a human voice," but ever since Proposition 215 made the ballot, the administration has done all it can to silence the clear voice of California voters. It has sought to shut down various cannabis clubs throughout the state, and its struggle against one in Oakland has taken the issue through the federal courts.
Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case some time next year -- presumably after it's resolved the presidential election.
The administration contends that Proposition 215 interferes with its ability to enforce federal drug laws that prohibit virtually all marijuana use, with the exception of a few narrowly constrained medical experiments. The question before the Supreme Court is whether, like such experiments, the "medical necessity" that California cites in defense of Proposition 215 warrants an exemption from the stringent application of federal law.
The U.S. Department of Justice rejects the "medical necessity" claim, arguing that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use." But that position seems to stem from an ideological commitment to a total war on drugs, not medical reality.
The federal government is dazed by the prospect that acknowledging some limited good use for otherwise bad drugs might undermine its overall case for prohibition. Rather than risk this appearance of inconsistency, politicians from both parties seem content to let those who could use marijuana to alleviate their pain keep on suffering.
Although there's a limited number of studies on the subject, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence and doctors' testimony that, when used appropriately, marijuana can settle patients' stomachs, build up their weight, control pain, steady spastic muscles, even relieve glaucoma. It's been remarkably effective at helping some cancer patients stave off nausea and restore their appetites after chemotherapy treatments.
Even a recent federal study lends some credibility to marijuana's medical value. In 1997, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey -- who has consistently opposed Proposition 215 -- asked the federal Institute of Medicine to investigate the drug's medicinal qualities. The IOM concluded: "The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation."
Nonetheless, Washington clings to its hazy concern that making a legal distinction between criminals and cancer victims will open the floodgates to rampant drug use and, eventually, legalization. Rather than combat abuse as it happens, it insists upon treating recreational and therapeutic marijuana use in exactly the same way.
It's a case of zero tolerance begetting zero sense, culminating in a 30-year-old federal policy that has produced the cruelest of absurdities: denying, in the name of ideological purity, treatment to those who suffer.
Proposition 215 -- like the eight other state medical-marijuana laws it has inspired across the country -- was an effort to restore some semblance of sobriety to American drug policy. Despite the administration's dogged resistance, there's a chance that it might just succeed -- if the Supreme Court places a greater value on states' rights, popular elections and compassion than does the Clinton-Gore administration.
There's also the hope that a George W. Bush administration, should it ever come to pass, would show more deference to California law. Even though Republicans are, for the most part, every bit as inflexible and dogmatic about the war on drugs as Democrats, Bush has said that the question of medical marijuana rightfully belongs to the states.
For a "compassionate conservative" and a champion of limited government, that's a reasonable position to take. Of course, it would also be a reasonable position for Gore, who, when denouncing HMOs during the campaign, repeatedly called to "give the decisions back to the doctors."
Doctors know their patients' needs better than the federal government -- especially a federal government trapped in a decades-old addiction to excessive, failed policies.