Where's the Compassion?

September 02, 2003

This week, Attorney General John Ashcroft continues his 20-city tour to promote the Patriot Act and its proposed sequel, the so-called Victory Act. Critics have assailed the Attorney General for his shameless promotion of the far-reaching law and rightly so. As a man who is prone to singing self-penned hymns, Ashcroft is clearly guided by the fierce anger of Jehovah rather than the love of Christ. His tenure so far has been marked by a particularly ham-fisted approach that is fueled by the sort of righteous indignation found in the Old Testament. Sure, he will punish the evil, but with the wide nets he casts, how many marginal or even innocent are wrongly punished? Nowhere is this principle better illustrated than in the federal government’s war against medical marijuana.

On July 10 of this year, the Justice Dept. asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that prevents the federal government from taking prescription licenses from doctors who recommend marijuana to patients for medical reasons. On August 9, at an American Bar Association panel, the top federal trial lawyer in three of five ongoing federal suits in California involving medical marijuana, compared states that have passed such laws to Southern states that defied civil rights laws in the 1950s. Only a few days later, drug czar John Walters, in an appearance in Oregon—the first stop on a nationwide tour that will touch down in the 25 largest U.S. cities to promote state and local drug enforcement and abuse prevention efforts—said that medical marijuana is simply a ploy to legalize the drug. "What's really going on is that sick and dying people are being used as a political prop to legalize marijuana," the director of National Drug Control Policy stated.

The Justice Department and fellow drug enforcement officials are driven by marijuana’s general prohibition and informed by the age-old “Reefer Madness”-like suppositions that have fueled the war against marijuana since it was outlawed in 1937. “It’s my belief that marijuana is not a medicine,” Richard Meyer, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s spokesman, recently said. “Marijuana is a schedule one substance. … And we have to protect the public from all kinds of dangerous drugs.”

The U.S. government’s effort is further motivated by a federal campaign since 9/11 to link the war on drugs, in particular the one on marijuana, to the war on terrorism. One provision of Ashcroft’s proposed Victory Act would reportedly treat drug possession as a "terrorist offense" and treat drug dealers as "narcoterrorist kingpins."

While ten states have passed provisions that legalize medical marijuana in some manner, the federal government has chosen to wage its war in the original state to provide for the drug’s medicinal use. Since September 2001, there have been over 20 arrests and raids in California conducted by the federal government for the growing of marijuana for medical purposes. In one of the more high profile incidents, the DEA raided the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a collective of 250 seriously ill patients based in Santa Cruz, CA, and arrested its founders, Valerie and Michael Corral. During the raid, DEA agents also carted off WAMM’s patient records and seized the patients’ weekly medical marijuana allotment. After witnessing agents cut down 167 marijuana plants grown by the WAMM collective, patients blocked a country road, preventing U-Hauls full with medical marijuana from passing. Only after negotiating the release of the Corrals were the agents allowed to proceed.

The raid is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by patients and the City and County of Santa Cruz to enjoin federal agents from making any further raids. They charge that the federal government is violating their Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Amendment rights. Plaintiffs include seven WAMM patients who maintain that they rely upon medical marijuana to control seizures and severe pain, stimulate appetite in AIDS wasting syndrome, and ease the nausea caused by cancer treatments.

The last two reasons are often cited when arguing the merits of medical marijuana. Former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger joined a campaign last summer to lift the federal ban on medicinal marijuana. Reagan’s White House political director became a supporter when his daughter was dying of cancer. He said that marijuana was the only drug that helped alleviate her nausea and the other side effects of chemotherapy. “It is not a cure, but it made that part of her life more bearable,” Nofziger said. “And that meant a great deal to her, and her parents.”

Constitutional issues aside (and there are many involved here), the federal government’s crusade against medicinal marijuana completely dismisses the human element involved. A recent New York Times article on President Bush’s attempts to identify himself as a “compassionate conservative” argues that this approach will likely hurt Bush’s re-election campaign because so many of his policies have seemingly lacked compassion. In the case of medical marijuana, the President is missing a unique opportunity. Calling off Ashcroft and his dogs would finally show voters where the compassion has been.