Lies they tell about marijuana

April 15, 2009

Helen Redmond explains the terrible consequences of the "war on drugs" on the life-improving potential of medical marijuana.

IN PRESIDENT Obama's first virtual town-hall meeting, questions about legalizing marijuana ranked at the top of the "green jobs," "financial stability" and "budget" sections, and came in a close second in the health care section.

Obama took up the question, saying voters wanted to know "whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation"--then joking, "I don't know what this says about the online audience." After the laughter subsided, Obama's answer was "no" to legalizing marijuana.

But there's nothing to laugh about. A person is arrested every 38 seconds in the U.S. for violating marijuana laws. In 2007, police arrested an estimated 872,720 people, the highest annual total ever recorded, according to statistics compiled by the FBI. Over the last 10 years, close to 15 million people have been arrested; 89 percent of them were charged with possession only. A marijuana conviction has given millions of Americans criminal records, and deprived them of jobs, housing and financial aid to attend school.

A medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco
A medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco

There is an enormous disconnect between laws that are enforced so broadly and ruthlessly and yet are viewed as pointless by large numbers of the population. Marijuana is the most popular and widely used illicit drug. Millions of Americans have smoked it despite its illegality, including Obama who, when asked if he inhaled (a litmus-test question since Bill Clinton lied and said he didn't), deadpanned, "I inhaled frequently. That was the point."

This is a country suffused in cannabis culture, from hip-hop artists defiantly smoking blunts to the Golden Globe-nominated Showtime series Weeds. There are millions of Americans for whom smoking marijuana is as normal and natural as drinking a beer or a glass of wine.

Marijuana is one of the safest drugs. No one has ever died from using it, and its effects are mostly benign. The federal government, however, has launched a campaign of myths, distortions and outright lies to demonize marijuana as a dangerous and unsafe drug.

Among the "reefer madness" claims about marijuana: it is a "gateway" to harder drugs, it is highly addictive, it destroys long-term memory, and it causes lung cancer and mental illness. All of these assertions have been refuted by decades of scientific research and by the direct experience of millions of people who smoke marijuana and suffer no negative health problems.

MARIJUANA IS also medicine and is taken by thousands of sick and dying patients to ease the nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy, reduce intraocular pressure in glaucoma, and treat peripheral neuropathy. The medicinal properties of cannabis have been widely researched in Europe and Canada, and there is little debate in the scientific community anymore--marijuana successfully treats a range of health conditions.

It's impossible to conduct marijuana research in the U.S. because the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies it as a Schedule 1 Drug--drugs in this category are deemed to have high abuse potential and no accepted medical use.

But in a review of the evidence, the American Institute of Medicine found, "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." The report concluded, "The adverse effects of marijuana are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications." Even the conservative American Medical Association supports the use of medical marijuana.

But in the government's "take all prisoners" war against medical marijuana, the first targets were doctors. In 1997, former drug czar Barry McCaffrey threatened to revoke prescription licenses or criminally prosecute physicians who recommended marijuana to their patients.

In a 2002 class-action lawsuit, a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the right of doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients. The ruling protected doctors against prosecution, but not patients who actually carried out the recommendation and used marijuana.

Meanwhile, the federal government was losing the battle against medical marijuana, with 13 states passing laws allowing for "compassionate use." California was the first state to legalize marijuana sales to people with a doctor's prescription. Licensed medical marijuana dispensaries were opened, and the law allowed patients to grow plants for personal consumption.

The Feds and the DEA were outraged and fought any change to marijuana's illegal status at the federal level. In its 2005 Gonzales v. Raich decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could prosecute medical marijuana patients even in states with compassionate use laws. In effect, federal law would trump and nullify state law.

The raids and arrests began with the new targets--medical marijuana dispensaries, hospices, and the homes of sick and terminally ill patients.

One of these patients, Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic, was sleeping when 20 armed federal agents raided her medical marijuana hospice and held assault rifles to the heads of patients and caregivers. Here is her description of the raid:

At dawn, I awoke to five federal agents pointing assault rifles at my head. I did not hear them come in because my respirator is rather loud. They yelled at me to put my hands in the air and stand up. I tried to explain to them that I needed to put my hands down on the bed in order to sit up because I am paralyzed. They again shouted at me to sit up. I pointed to my crutches and braces, and I normally use a wheelchair.

At that point, they ripped the covers off the bed and finally realized what I was trying to explain amid their shouts and guns. They handcuffed me behind my back and left me on the bed.

Will Foster has severe rheumatoid arthritis and was prescribed narcotics to manage the pain, but couldn't tolerate the side effects. Foster tried marijuana, and the pain and swelling subsided. He grew marijuana in the basement of his home. In 1995, the police knocked on his door with a search warrant. Behind a locked steel door in the basement, they found Foster's marijuana plants and arrested him.

Even though Foster, a father of two children and successful computer programmer, had only $30 in the house and no evidence of any sales, the jury convicted him of cultivation and intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 93 years in prison. Foster said of his conviction:

My medical use of marijuana never interfered with my work. I ran a successful business. I told my conservative doctor what I was doing, and while he did not really agree with it because of the health risk of smoking, he witnessed my positive results. I was minding my own business, taking care of my health and family. What was I doing to anybody that got me 93 years?

Foster fought the conviction, served four years in prison, and was finally paroled in 2001.

The majority of the public opposes these violent, paramilitary SWAT team raids and outrageous prison sentences.

Support for medical marijuana is so high that after a federal raid on the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) in Santa Cruz, the mayor and city council permitted WAMM to publicly hand out marijuana to its patients at City Hall. Vice Mayor Emily Reilly said, "It's just absolutely loathsome to me that federal money, energy and staff time would be used to harass people like this." Even the Santa Cruz sheriff's office opposed the raids.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA patients won a victory last month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would end the raids of marijuana dispensaries. The Obama administration's position on medical marijuana is a welcome and long overdue change to that of the Bush administration.

Obama laid out his position during the campaign. "My attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best palliative care and the way to relieve pain and suffering is medical marijuana, then that's something I'm open to," he said. "There's no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from pain."

But just one week later, the DEA raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic, a licensed medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, asked, "Doesn't the Obama administration have more important issues to deal with right now?"

For more than 30 years, the federal government has been waging the "war on drugs." The criminalization of marijuana and the prosecution of users is the leading edge of the war, and functions as a conveyer belt that delivers hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system, year after year.

It's not possible to have a drug war on the scale that currently exists if marijuana is legalized. This is what the DEA and the forces that benefit from the drug war fear the most. They need the war-on-drugs hysteria to justify the DEA's existence and the more than $20 billion a year spent to enforce prohibition.

The war on drugs also plays an important role ideologically by reinforcing racism. Drug dealers and users, particularly Latinos and African Americans, have been convenient scapegoats for society's social and economic problems.

But cracks in the cannabis control system are wider than ever. A Zogby Poll conducted this year showed that 58 percent of West Coast respondents agreed that marijuana should be "taxed and regulated like alcohol and cigarettes." On the East Coast, 48 percent supported legalizing marijuana. A CBS/New York Times poll showed that 41 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.

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