Ronald Fraser: At long last, policymakers in Washington have begun to draw a line between illicit drug use and the legitimate use of drugs as medicine. In March, President Barack Obama's attorney general announced the federal government will no longer prosecute medical marijuana clinics that operate in compliance with state laws. This means lawmakers in Phoenix are now free to decide - without interference from Washington - if marijuana will fill a medical niche in Arizona.
At long last, policymakers in Washington have begun to draw a line between illicit drug use and the legitimate use of drugs as medicine. In March, President Barack Obama's attorney general announced the federal government will no longer prosecute medical marijuana clinics that operate in compliance with state laws. This means lawmakers in Phoenix are now free to decide - without interference from Washington - if marijuana will fill a medical niche in Arizona.
Thirteen states have already removed criminal penalties for the use of medical marijuana and actively regulate how, with a medical doctor's recommendation, marijuana is made available for patients with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, severe pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and other chronic conditions. But until now, Washington has disregarded these state laws. Since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, for example, federal agents have raided more than 100 marijuana distribution centers there.
Washington's first step
The first step has been taken with Washington's tacit acknowledgement that closing down state-regulated marijuana clinics is a misuse of taxpayers' money and harmful to Americans coping with serious illnesses. Many thousands of ill people attest that smoking, vaporizing or orally ingesting marijuana relieves pain, nausea and other symptoms far more effectively than Marinol, a pharmaceutically available synthetic version of marijuana.
While the federal government still officially maintains - contrary to solid medical evidence - that marijuana has no medicinal value, at least it has pledged not to raid medical marijuana facilities that are sanctioned by state law.
Arizona's Next Step?
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based advocate for legalizing medical marijuana, Arizona currently has a medical marijuana law on the books that allows patients to possess marijuana if it is obtained through a valid prescription. But under the law there is no legal supply of marijuana to fill such prescriptions.
In addition, a 2007 survey by the Marijuana Policy Project asked registered Arizona voters if they supported an initiative to "allow Arizona residents with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other serious illnesses to grow and use marijuana for medical purposes, as long as their physician approves." Sixty-eight percent of the respondents said they supported such an initiative.
Washington's new medical marijuana policy gives Arizona the freedom to exercise its historic role as the primary watchdog for the health and welfare of its citizens. Whether or not Arizona patients will be given greater access to medical marijuana is now up to the state Legislature or the voters.
Other Medicinal Drugs
Marijuana is not the only targeted medical drug. In all 50 states, federal raids can still close down pain clinics and arrest pain management physicians who prescribe large doses of opioids - highly effective, legal painkillers made from opium or synthetics with the properties of opiate narcotics.
Dr. Joel Hochman, director of the National Foundation for the Treatment of Pain in Houston, says the drug-war hysteria is making it too risky for many doctors to accept patients in chronic pain and that, with help from the media, federal raids on so-called "pill mills" paint a false picture that the streets are awash in drugs carelessly handed out by unprincipled doctors.
Instead, he claims, these clinics provide last-resort care to largely uninsured or under-insured blue-collar and other limited-income workers, many with work-related injuries, who can only afford a five-minute visit at high-volume, low-cost, low-profit clinics.
To stay in business these clinics must see 60 to 100 patients each day. With this level of traffic, doctors can make errors and patients can lie about their ailments _ making the clinics easy targets for federal agents. But, since these clinics provide valuable medical services, Hochman says law enforcement polices are misdirected.
His bottom line is: "Wake up America. The dope lords are making billions. The little pain clinics in the strip shopping centers sure aren't."
Instead of getting drugs off the streets, Hochman adds that closing down these pain clinics will "drive patients into the streets, seeking relief from their suffering. Their choices become: score hydrocodone off the street; score heroin off the street; drown their pain with alcohol. No one can tolerate unrelieved pain."
What to do? "End opiophobia and fantasy-driven public policies," Hochman said, "and establish publicly supported clinics so every suffering person can get relief. Confront the fact that law enforcement agencies and prisons are all strung out on the drug prohibition laws and need to be brought back to reality."
Here is a rare opportunity for elected officials in Arizona and in Washington to take a long hard look at how harsh drug laws are undermining medical care in America. For the millions of people desperately coping with chronic ailments, let's not waste it.
Dr. Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.