Let Terminally Ill Ease Their Pain by Smoking Pot

Let terminally ill ease their pain by smoking pot

By Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register Columnist
June 8, 2005

First the good news: People with debilitating illnesses are finding relief in doctor-prescribed marijuana. They say it eases their pain, boosts their appetites, curbs their nausea, and in those ways, extends their lives.

Now the bad news: The U.S. Supreme Court says the federal government can prosecute them even if their states allow them to use it.

So in one more way, terminally ill people are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

They can't look forward to a cure through the only channel that now holds promise: embryonic stem-cell research.

They can't seek relief from their symptoms in one of the only substances that offers any: marijuana.

They can't even find a legal exit strategy when the pain or infirmity becomes too overwhelming, through physician-assisted suicide.

That's happening even though a majority of the public has shown support for all three options, either through national polls or state referenda.

The president has vowed to veto any bill to fund embryonic stem-cell research. The administration has sued to stop Oregon's assisted-suicide law, which was approved by 60 percent of Oregon voters. And with Monday's ruling in the government's favor, federal authorities can prosecute people even where state law permits medical marijuana and their doctors prescribe it.

Purely as a question of federal rights over state ones, the ruling has merit. Federal law supersedes state law. Who can forget that it took federal intervention to enforce school desegregation over states' resistance?

But the government's stance against medicinal marijuana is another case in which this administration lags behind both the public will and the most humane approach for sick people. States and their voters have tried, in frustration, to take matters into their own hands, with laws permitting physician-assisted suicide and medicinal marijuana. Now those efforts are being undermined, too. It remains to be seen what will happen to California's effort to fund its own embryonic stem-cell research.

The administration's argument that the safety and effectiveness of medicinal marijuana haven't been proven is a particular Catch-22. Scientists who think they can prove it either can't get federal approval for their studies or can't get marijuana of adequate quality and potency through the government.

Case in point: A professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Lyle Craker, has applied and been turned down by the Drug Enforcement Agency for permission to grow a research-grade marijuana, at private expense, to explore potential health benefits. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the DEA on Craker's behalf.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer proposed patients ask the Food and Drug Administration to reclassify marijuana for medical use. But as the ACLU argues, that's not possible when the government has stood in the way of the studies.

"But they'll give money to show how dangerous it is," argues ACLU attorney Allen Hopper, who accuses the administration of elevating ideology over science.

On the other hand, the federal government is supplying and allowing seven people to use marijuana medicinally under an ongoing "compassionate use" program. By doing so, it acknowledges the benefit to them.

The ACLU is trying to put the best face on the Supreme Court ruling, noting that the court didn't overturn state medicinal marijuana laws and that less than 1 percent of marijuana prosecutions are federal.

But whether federal law is enforced or not, the fact remains that people using marijuana on their doctors' orders and in accordance with state laws can be arrested and prosecuted by the feds.

The issue will ultimately have to be resolved with the passage of federal law. And though the ideological makeup of the present Congress doesn't favor that, elected officials are sensitive to re-election pressures. There is hope only if enough Americans push their representatives for legalization of medicinal marijuana and for more unbiased research that could show its benefits.

DesMoines Register Columnist Rekha Basu delivers a compassionate and practical article on the benefits of marijuana and the "Catch-22" of the present medical marijuana struggle. She dicusses the treatment limitations that patients with serious illnesses face and urges Americans to "push their representatives for legalization of medicinal marijuana and for more unbiased research."