The Principled Way to Permit Medical Marijuana

Original Article

Unprincipled. That’s what it is. No, not the federal government’s too-long-delayed police crackdown on California’s recreational marijuana industry. That’s right, “recreational,” not “medical”: When Golden State sellers of marijuana bring in $1.5 billion each year, they are clearly doing much more than merely “providing sick people their medicine.”

But the real culprits here are not the people who are breaking both federal and California law. Ultimate blame must fall on enabling officials in cities like Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach who have smilingly issued city permits licensing blatantly felonious enterprises.

And now that President Obama’s Justice Department is actually enforcing the law, the Puff the Magic Dragon types are warning that he could pay a political price for doing his jobFrom a San Francisco Chronicle front-page story:

Another slice of President Obama’s liberal base has become frustrated and disappointed with him: a growing number of leaders in California’s $1.5 billion medical cannabis community. Supporters of the state’s network of medical pot businesses, like some members in the gay and environmentalist voting blocs, think Obama has not lived up to his campaign promises. In 2007, then-candidate Obama said in New Hampshire that he “would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It’s not a good use of our resources.” A 2009 Justice Department memo seemed to confirm as much.

That promise was unprincipled, too. Obama shouldn’t have run for POTUS on the plank of breaking his oath of office by refusing to enforce the law. Rather, he should have promised to change the law — in this case, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) — by permitting marijuana to be prescribed for conditions for which it is an effective palliative, just like we do already with much stronger drugs like morphine and cocaine. But in his nearly three years in office, President Obama has not said one word advocating that principled and needed course.

Obama gave them an inch … and you know how the rest of the saying goes. Again from The Chronicle’s story.

Federal prosecutors say they believe the state’s law has become a cover for an increasing number of illegal, large-scale growers and dispensaries to develop for-profit operations that are beyond the original intent of the state law, which was to provide relief to the sick and frail. On Oct. 7, the four regional U.S. attorneys in California announced that they would begin cracking down on commercial dispensaries. The prosecutors said they are not singling out patients but are concerned about bad actors in a loosely regulated industry with an estimated 500 to 2,500 or more collectives statewide.

Thus, Obama’s crackdown does not violate his unprincipled campaign promise. He never said he would allow an illegal commercial drug industry to thrive.

Meanwhile, officials of several cities that wisely outlawed marijuana distribution stores have been subjected to litigation. The gall of it! Marijuana dispensers claimed that Proposition 215, the medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1996, created a legal right to go into the marijuana distribution business. No, it doesn’t, said the California Court of Appeals. From the Los Angeles Times story:

In a decision that could have immediate fallout for medical marijuana dispensaries, a state appeals court has ruled that California law allows cities and counties to ban the stores. The contentious issue has bounced through the state courts for years, but the opinion issued Wednesday is the first published one that directly tackles it and does so in unambiguous language. The decision, which upholds Riverside’s ban, could embolden more cities and counties to enact their own. It also could spur those that have bans to be more aggressive about seeking court orders to close defiant dispensaries.

This decision is a rare oasis of principle in the field. Proposition 215 authorized small, non-profit hippie-style cooperatives and allowed people with medical conditions to grow a few plants of their own. It did not legalize marijuana’s general distribution. Moreover, a recent California initiative that sought to legalize recreational marijuana failed at the polls.

It is maddening that our cowardly political leaders, who claim to support medical marijuana, refuse to seize the obvious way forward by amending the CSA. In this regard, I visited a very close friend who lives in Canada last month. He is disabled by progressive multiple sclerosis that causes recurrent neuropathic (nerve) pain, which is hard to control through conventional methods. He is a very socially conservative fellow and opposes recreational marijuana. But he does believe in medicinal pain control. He showed me a marijuana spray his doctor legally prescribed that, he told me, effectively relieves his pain using precisely measured doses, without also creating a high. And, he obtained the medicine privately and respectably at a pharmacy, rather than having to patronize a marijuana store to buy a baggie of bud and rolling paper based on a doctor’s “letter.”

As it stands now, the CSA states that cannabis has no medicinal uses, another example of the lack of principle in this field. No law should be based on such a blatant falsehood. The time has come to bring the federal statute into conformity with current medical knowledge. Amending the CSA would bring order to the current anarchic system of medical marijuana dispensing and allow suffering people to obtain needed relief by prescription, while still outlawing the development of a recreational pot industry.

Wesley J. Smith, an attorney and author, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.