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Conor Friedersdorf: Feds shouldn't enforce medical marijuana laws

As Published in the Orange County Register
Jun 9, 2014
News and Commentary

Last week, the House of Representatives surprised observers by approving a change in drug policy that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has been pushing for seven years. The Orange County Republican acknowledges that marijuana can harm people. He advises against recreational use of the drug. But he objects to a federal government that arrests purveyors and users of medical marijuana even in states that have declared it legal.

Doctors are trusted to prescribe all manner of powerful opiates, amphetamines and steroids. Why should they be barred from treating patients with a less dangerous, less addictive, cheaper drug in jurisdictions where a majority of voters have declared that they have no objection?

Congress has heard variations on that argument since at least 2007, when Congressman Rohrabacher, a defender of the 10th Amendment, bravely began insisting that marijuana policy should be left up to the states and the people. Year after year, he tried to persuade a majority of his colleagues, only to have his efforts fail. Finally, his perseverance has paid off.

“This measure passed because it received more support from Republicans than ever before,” said Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It is refreshing to see conservatives in Congress sticking to conservative principles on marijuana policy. Republicans increasingly recognize that marijuana prohibition is a failed big government program that infringes on states rights.”

In fact, 22 states and the District of Columbia permit marijuana for medical purposes, an additional five states allow an oil derived from marijuana that helps people who suffer from epileptic seizures, and even more states are expected to approve medical marijuana by year’s end. That’s a lot of jurisdictions where the will of the people is being flouted by the feds.

National majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents all favor medical marijuana, too. And no wonder. The federal government is running a huge deficit. The national debt keeps growing. Veterans are dying for lack of speedy treatment. Infrastructure is crumbling. Terrorism remains a threat. Given all our problems, using scarce federal resources to crack down on cannabis for cancer patients is ludicrous, especially with even recreational use now legal in two states. And what do the feds have to show for their efforts at prohibition?

Federal policy is even holding back medical research. “The federal government maintains a monopoly on the production of only one drug: marijuana,” conservative activist Grover Norquist explains. “Researchers who get government funding to look for the harms of marijuana can get the marijuana they need for their studies, while those who want to conduct clinical trials of its therapeutic value are typically frustrated by bureaucratic obstacles.”

Think about that. Research scientists have refrained from destroying the last samples of small pox, one of the deadliest viruses in history, to preserve their ability to do research. Nanotechnology, genetically modified crops and cloning experiments are all largely unregulated. But the Drug Enforcement Administration would have us believe that it’s too dangerous to give research scientists unfettered access to a drug that any college student can buy.

Shame on us for deferring to their obviously flawed judgment for so long.

As Rohrabacher put it, “People are suffering, and if the doctor feels he has to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way.”

That proposition isn’t quite official policy. With the reform effort out of the House, it must pass the Senate and be signed by President Obama to pass into law. If and when that happens, drug policy will be both improved and less expensive, a rare combination in this world. As importantly, Republicans will have sent a signal that every conservative ought to welcome, regardless of their feelings about marijuana. They’ll have told a distant, opaque federal bureaucracy, “Stop imposing your will on citizens who are perfectly capable of deciding what the law ought to be in their states without any interference from Washington, D.C.”

Staff opinion columnist Conor Friedersdorf also is a staff writer for the Atlantic.

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