Let Them Have Their Pot

The feds should stop harassing sick patients who have the legal right to use marijuana

In the fictional world of the hit show “24,” federal law enforcement agencies are pouring every last resource into the search for a nuclear terrorist in Los Angeles.

In the real world, federal agents apparently have so much free time that they can dress up in bulletproof vests and masks in order to raid clinics that serve patients battling cancer, AIDS and other diseases. That’s what happened last week as Drug Enforcement Administration agents stormed 11 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout L.A. and West Hollywood. We can all rest easier knowing that lollipops, cookies, candies and candy bars laced with marijuana are in no danger of reaching seriously ill patients.

Recall that 56% of California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, making it legal for patients to obtain and use medical marijuana under the care of a doctor. A 2004 Field poll showed that support for the law has grown since its passage, with 74% of Californians now in favor of allowing sick patients to use marijuana. In 2004, SB 420 clarified how much medicinal cannabis patients could grow and possess, and it allowed local governments to set additional guidelines.

The West Hollywood City Council recently voted to control the number of medical marijuana dispensaries operating in the city. Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department submitted more than 40 recommendations for controlling dispensaries, seeking to ban them from being within 1,000 feet of schools and to require owners to remove all litter “visible to the public within 100 feet of the premises at least twice daily.” The dispensaries also have practiced self-regulation. Yes, there have been poorly run dispensaries and others looking to circumvent the system – but the feds didn’t focus on them.

Instead, this raid hit one of the best-run dispensaries in West Hollywood – the Farmacy – where patients must present valid medical information verified by doctors; where purchases are limited to 1 ounce, even though the law allows patients to possess 8 ounces; where patients aren’t allowed to medicate on the premises; and where anyone caught with forged documents is detained until police arrive and charged with a felony.

The Farmacy has been a leader in treatment and education. Caring for patients suffering from everything from cancer to glaucoma to multiple sclerosis, it teaches patients about the effects of different strains of indica and sativa marijuana and offers edibles and concentrated medicine in the form of oil to reduce the potential harm of smoking marijuana in plant form.

The raid on the Farmacy shocked West Hollywood officials, who weren’t notified of it in advance.

“We have worked closely with our community to ensure these establishments operate safely and comply with the spirit of Proposition 215,” West Hollywood City Council member Jeffrey Prang said.

“The DEA is here to enforce federal drug laws,” Special Agent Sarah Pullen declared, and, strictly speaking, she was right. In a 2001 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “medical necessity” of a patient could not be used as a defense against federal drug enforcement. (The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with “no medical uses” – making it worse in the eyes of the feds than cocaine, methamphetamine and many other drugs.) In 2005, the court ruled that federal authorities could even stop a seriously ill patient from cultivating marijuana for her personal use.

In her dissent from that decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared that such “overreaching stifles an express choice by some states.” Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his opinion for the court that Congress could revisit its outdated law to deal with the “strong arguments that marijuana does have valid therapeutic purposes.”

Meanwhile, the DEA can still bully its way past California law while ignoring its own spectacular policy failures. The DEA has failed to significantly reduce marijuana consumption despite breathtaking increases in arrests and incarcerations. And its recent efforts aimed at keeping medicine from patients are shamefully transparent attempts to go after an easy target: Marijuana dispensaries operate openly, and cancer patients are limited in their ability to evade law enforcement.

The arcane classification of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act persists despite the government’s own actions and data to the contrary. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration approved Marinol pills, which use the active ingredient in marijuana (THC) to treat nausea and vomiting. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that “the evidence is relatively strong for the [marijuana] treatment of pain and, intriguing although less well established, for movement disorders.”

So what can be done? Congress must reclassify marijuana in accord with the standards of science and medicine. The law simply needs to be fixed.

Until that time, the DEA should find better ways to spend its time and resources. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) has called on the federal government to leave California – and the 10 other states that have approved medical marijuana – alone. His bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), was voted down 264 to 161 in 2005.

This reform is overdue. It should be an urgent priority for our new Congress to stop the Justice Department from arresting or harassing sick people in 11 states who have the legal right to use medical marijuana.

Manuel S. Klausner, founder of the Reason Foundation, is a lawyer in Los Angeles. He filed the Reason Foundation’s amicus brief in the Supreme Court medical marijuana case of Gonzales vs. Raich.