The Medical Pot Hysteria

June 13, 2005
The Medical Pot Hysteria
by Cathy Young

WITH EVERYTHING else going on in the world, it’s good to know that the federal government is being vigilant when it comes to the really dangerous people: those unrepentant chronic-pain patients who viciously insist on using marijuana to relieve their suffering. Last week in Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court ruled that federal drug laws supersede the laws several states have passed in recent years legalizing the production and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Apparently, the actions of a sick woman in California growing pot in her basement for her medical needs affect ”interstate commerce,” which means that the Constitution says it’s all right to bring in the feds.

The ruling is bad legal reasoning; commentators such as Boston University law professor Randy Barnett, who argued the case before the Supreme Court last November, point out that it directly contradicts several of the court’s decisions in recent years narrowing the scope of federal powers. It is also bad moral reasoning. Whether you use personal autonomy or compassion as your standard, denying seriously ill men and women access to a drug that could help them is repugnant. Moreover, as Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in The New York Times, research on therapeutic uses of marijuana has been held back by ideologically motivated restrictions.

All this is the latest example of how the war on drugs has addled our brains. Yes, drug abuse is a serious problem. But the demonization of illegal drugs — even mild ones such as marijuana, which tens of millions of Americans have indulged in with consequences no worse than for legal intoxicants — has created a climate that is just as dangerous.

The persecution of medical marijuana users is one example. Here’s another: Under a congressional bill proposed by Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, if you are aware of any drug use or sale on a college campus or in a home with children and fail to report it within 24 hours, you will face a minimum two-year prison sentence. Maybe we could call it Uncle Joe’s Law, since it has a distinct flavor of the Stalin-era Soviet Union where people could be imprisoned for failing to report political crimes. I’m not fond of Soviet parallels for the actions of democratic government, but this parallel does suggest itself. It’s all the more galling since this proposed Draconian measure is not directed at terrorists who want to kill us, but at college kids who want a few hits of pot.

This isn’t a conservative-versus-liberal, Republican-versus-Democrat issue: Both parties are drug war parties. (It was the Clinton administration in the 1990s that decided to use federal authority to thwart new state laws legalizing medical marijuana: In 1996, Clinton approved a plan to subject doctors who prescribe the drug to federal prosecution.) It’s hard to tell which side is more guilty of hypocrisy. What happened to the conservatives’ commitment to the principles of states’ rights and limited government? What happened to liberals’ concern for the rights of defendants and to the right to privacy?

The libertarian solution to this problem is to legalize or at least decriminalize drug use, at least for adults. There are solid arguments for this: In a free society, people should generally be able to decide what substances they put in their bodies. On a pragmatic level, decriminalization would take drug profits for organized crime and even terrorism out of the equation. The obvious counterargument is that it will lead to more drug abuse, since obtaining drugs will be far easier. But the most likely result would be a small increase in casual use: when drugs are illegal, it stands to reason that the kind of people who obtain them are also more prone to addiction. Drug prohibition is based on the idea that the diabolical power of drugs robs people of the ability to make choices. Yet, as Satel persuasively argued earlier this month at an American Enterprise Institute conference on neuroscience and morality, this isn’t true: addicts can and do choose to quit.

Satel believes that marijuana should be treated no differently from alcohol, with generally tougher drunk driving penalties. However, she does not support drug legalization; for one, she told me, it is a political nonstarter that diverts attention from practical solutions (such as more emphasis on treatment rather than prosecution). That’s almost certainly true. But maybe we should start by just saying no to drug hysteria. Then, in a saner climate, we can start thinking about solutions.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.
The Boston Globe ran an article by Cathy Young entitled, “The Medical Pot Hysteria,” that includes a mention of Sally Satel’s terrific New York Times op-ed piece talking about federal obstruction of research.