Steve Chapman

In 1973, Robert Randall was going blind from glaucoma when he discovered that smoking marijuana seemed to help his condition. That didn't matter to police when they found the Washington, D.C., resident growing cannabis and arrested him. Preferring to keep his sight, Randall sued the federal government, arguing that he was entitled to smoke pot as a "medical necessity."

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It was a far-fetched argument -- but it worked. In 1976, a court ruled in Randall's favor. Before long, the federal government found itself in the strange position of supplying marijuana to him and a handful of other patients under a "compassionate use" program.

The compassion didn't go very far. The first President Bush stopped the acceptance of new patients into the program in 1992 rather than admit all those annoying AIDS victims, insisting that it sent a dangerous message to young people.

The real danger, of course, was the message that government policy on cannabis was ignorant and irrational. But since then, one president and one drug czar after another has furiously resisted efforts to allow therapeutic use of the drug no matter how helpful it may be to the sick and dying.

Until now. This week, the Justice Department kept a promise made by candidate Barack Obama when it announced that henceforth, "it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."

The change is not only historic but humane and intelligent, two adjectives rarely applied to federal drug policy. Science has established that cannabis has useful properties for the treatment of various diseases, countless physicians have endorsed it, and 14 states have allowed sick people access to marijuana. But for three decades, the people in charge of drug policy in the federal government didn't give a rat's bottom.

In 1996, after California voters approved a medical marijuana law, the Clinton administration fought it every step of the way -- filing lawsuits to close cannabis buyers clubs, threatening to strip the licenses of doctors who recommended marijuana to patients and denouncing the entire program as "a Cheech and Chong show."

The Bush administration stuck to the same course. It raided California dispensaries and went all the way to the Supreme Court in a successful effort to crush the notion -- the conservative notion, come to think of it -- that states should have the power to set their own policy on pot.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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