Getting tough with the terminally ill

Posted: Jun 08, 2005 12:00 AM

I've got that all-over tingly feeling not felt since Martha Stewart was put away and America's mean streets made safe again.

I'm talking, of course, about Monday's Supreme Court ruling against state-sanctioned medical marijuana use that will keep the terminally ill and chronic pain sufferers from firing up a marijuana joint, getting stoned and, in addition to risking acute munchies, enjoying a temporary reprieve from hellish suffering.

Thank G-d we've got that particular homeland security problem under control. Why, in the age of terror, one can never be too careful with dying people who have nothing left to lose.

With rulings like these, alas, comedy is doomed.

The high court's 6-3 decision, in fact, had little to do with whether suffering people deserve relief, but whether the federal government has authority over states that have authorized medical marijuana use. To date, 11 states have such laws: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

The court ruled that even though medical marijuana may be homegrown and not for sale, it nevertheless falls under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

While lawyers hash out the legal intricacies, normal people are left wondering whether the Supreme Court has been partaking of the evil weed. Exceptions would be dissenters Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas.

Who, after all, gets hurt when dying or sick people smoke pot?

Quick aside to the feds: When my spine is disintegrating from cancer and I'm blind from glaucoma and I can't take a breath without agonizing pain, I'm gonna toke up, OK? Just fyi.

It seems remote to ridiculous that federal agents now will start arresting sick people for getting high, though stranger things can and do happen. Who could have imagined the scene we witnessed when then-Attorney General Janet Reno decided it was time for little Elian Gonzalez to get on back to Cuba? (I supported Elian's return to his father, by the way, but I must have been stoned to think we could accomplish a family reunion without a SWAT team and automatic weapons.)

Ironically, the Supreme Court ruling follows a study by Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron recommending that the U.S. legalize and tax marijuana ( Endorsed by some 500 economists, including Milton Friedman, the report noted the high cost of marijuana prohibition - about $7.7 billion annually - and the boon to the economy that an estimated $6.2 billion per year in taxes would provide.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the court's decision, offered a glimmer of hope when he noted that Congress could change the law to allow for medicinal uses of marijuana. By any measure, such a legal shift is long overdue and likely would be hugely popular.

In an unscientific poll posted Monday on MSNBC's Web site, self-selecting respondents were asked: "Should the federal government prosecute medical marijuana users, now that it has been given the OK by the Supreme Court?"

By midday, more than 63,000 had responded, with 88 percent saying "no." Ten percent said "yes," and 2 percent weren't sure. (Don't worry, two-percenters. It wears off in about three hours and then you can make up your mind.)

Otherwise, more than 60 U.S. and international health organizations, including the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, support allowing sick people to use marijuana under a doctor's care, according to the marijuana advocacy group NORML. (Go to for a list and other information.) Others, including the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, favor more research into the medical uses of marijuana, according to NORML.

As absurd as Monday's ruling seems, advocates for medical marijuana are not optimistic that Congress will have the courage to pass more reasonable marijuana laws. Which raises the question: Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism?

What's more conservative, after all, than getting the federal government out of private, victimless, state-sanctioned decisions? And what's more compassionate than letting a woman with brain cancer feel a little less tortured during her final days?

Congress has an opportunity to demonstrate how compassionate conservatism works by passing a bipartisan measure - the "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act" (HR 2087) - that recently was reintroduced. Defeated previously, the act would change marijuana's classification so that doctors could prescribe it under certain circumstances without altering current laws related to recreational use.

Thanks to the triumph of common sense over Prohibition, I can drink to that.