Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana has strong support from voters and health organizations. Medical marijuana is one of the most widely discussed issues in drug policy reform. Numerous published studies suggest that marijuana has medical value in treating patients with serious illnesses such as AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

The Compassionate Use Law Act of 1996 ensures that:

(A) Seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain marijuana treatment for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.

(B) Patients and their primary caregivers who obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes upon the recommendation of a physician are not subject to criminal prosecution or sanction.

Federal Law on Marijuana

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, defined as having a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. Multiple petitions for rescheduling marijuana have been submitted by reform advocates over the last 30 years. The most recent, submitted in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, calls for a full review of the scientific research and medical practice regarding marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to respond to this petition.

In 1978, the federal government was forced to allow some patients access to medical marijuana after a “medical necessity” defense was recognized in court, creating the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access program. The IND, which allowed some patients to receive medical marijuana from the government, was closed to new patients in 1992 after it was flooded by applications from AIDS patients. Today, seven surviving patients still receive medical marijuana from the federal government.

State Law on Marijuana

The 2005 Raich Supreme Court decision does not overturn or affect state law, and 99 percent of all marijuana arrests take place at the state or local level. This means that state laws afford substantial protection to medical marijuana patients. Currently, laws that effectively remove state-level criminal penalties for growing and/or possessing medical marijuana are in place in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Ten states, plus the District of Columbia, have symbolic medical marijuana laws (laws that support medical marijuana but do not provide patients with legal protection under state law).

New Mexico passed its medical marijuana bill in early 2007. In 1998, voters in the District of Columbia approved a medical marijuana initiative by 69 percent but Congress was able to nullify the vote results because D.C. is a federal district and not a state.

The Courts

In addition to changing state laws, medical marijuana advocates have pursued reform through the courts, most recently in the Raich v. Ashcroft Supreme Court case. Angel Raich, a medical marijuana patient in California, sued the federal government to stop federal raids against patients. Though she did not win the case, the ruling left state medical marijuana laws intact. She returned to court with an appeal based on a different set of arguments. The new arguments assert that she should be allowed to use medical marijuana because she has the fundamental right to avoid death and severe pain under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments.

Marijuana as a “Gateway” Drug

It is key to understand in the argument of wanting to legalize marijuana for medical purposes that marijuana is a “gateway” drug. That is, those who use marijuana are more likely to move on to “harder” and more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the younger someone is when he or she uses marijuana, the more likely he or she is to use other drugs when they reach adulthood.

Public Support

Public opinion is also in favor of ending the prohibition of medical marijuana. According to a 1999 Gallup poll, 73 percent of Americans are in favor of “making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering.” In a 2004 poll commissioned by AARP, 72 percent of Americans ages 45 and older thought marijuana should be legal for medicinal purposes if recommended by a doctor. Also, since 1996, voters in eight states plus the District of Columbia have passed favorable medical marijuana ballot initiatives.
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