California passes medical marijuana initiative
Steve Schell
November/December 1996

On November 5, Californians went to the polls and made a choice that was much more momentous than their choice for president. They voted to accept the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, otherwise known as the Medical Marijuana Initiative. By doing so, Californians acknowledged that marijuana indeed has some medical use, and that persons requiring it for such purposes should not be prosecuted as drug criminals. This initiative was mostly the result of an effort to allow the people to decide the issue since, on two previous occasions, the state legislature had passed similar bills only to have them vetoed by the governor.

The initiative had been the subject of heated debate, not only in the states affected (Arizona also passed a similar initiative), but nationwide, during the months preceding the elections. The list of endorsements of the initiative is quite impressive, with medical organizations, social organizations, and even lawmakers and some law enforcement officers in favor of its passage. The opponents consist of the usual suspects: the DEA, California governor Pete Wilson, D.A.R.E. America, and all manner of law enforcement organizations. Those who favor decriminalization altogether, i.e. the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), have acknowledged that passage of medicinal use of marijuana initiatives is a key step in the right direction.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, as it has been since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The criteria for Schedule I substances are 1) high potential for abuse, 2)No currently accepted medical use in the US, and 3) lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Other Schedule I substances include heroin and LSD. Right off the bat it seems that marijuana is wrongly classified if it is in the same class as heroin and LSD. More important, marijuana has been used medicinally since 1986 and its active ingredient, THC, has been legally produced as a drug in tablet and liquid form as well. In response to this situation, the DEA reclassified only the prescription form as a Schedule II substance, leaving the plant itself as a Schedule I substance. This change came about even when the government was issuing joints to certain people for medical use. Since the Food and Drug Administration was issuing these prescriptions, the DEA's own administrative law judge, Francis Young, recommended in 1988 that marijuana be removed from Schedule I but the DEA Director refused. Applications for "compassionate use" began to increase and the FDA then stopped granting them altogether by 1992. Now that California and Arizona have decreed that marijuana does have an accepted medical use, it would seem that the original classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance should be reexamined.

In the weeks leading up to voting day, both sides issued position papers and arguments in support of their views. The California Narcotic Officers' Association said in its paper that its members felt "compelled to provide the facts on the use of marijuana as medicine." Among these "well documented facts" are:

1. "The movement to legitimize marijuana as medicine is not encouraged by the pharmaceutical companies, and medical associations of medical experts; but instead by groups such as [NORML] and the Drug Policy Foundation." I wouldn't expect pharmaceutical companies to encourage the use of marijuana as medicine because it would be of no benefit to them. In fact, it may even cut into the use of marinol, the prescription form of the active ingredient of marijuana, which pharmaceutical companies now produce. Additionally, among the endorsers of the California initiative are the California Academy of Family Physicians, California Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, the director of Health and Human Services for Marin County, and numerous oncologists at various hospitals around the state.

2. "The medicinal marijuana movement and its media campaign have helped contribute to the changing attitude among our youth that marijuana is harmless, contributing to the increase of marijuana use among our young people..." I don't think anyone really believes that marijuana is harmless, however, neither do most people believe the claims about marijuana that the government has been making for the past 20 years. It has not been proven that marijuana is a "gateway drug", it has not been shown that marijuana is addictive, and, unless it is smoked as frequently as tobacco, it has not been shown that marijuana is any more harmful than tobacco, a substance that is legal and kills far more people each year (400,000) than marijuana does (zero). The major contributor to the "changing attitude among our youth" (if it really is any different than it ever was) is the realization among youth that the government is lying about marijuana and other drugs even when faced with evidence to the contrary. And people wonder why young people seem to be so apathetic toward government.

Another big argument against these initiatives is that some unscrupulous physicians may prescribe marijuana to people who really have no medical requirement for it. We have the same risk now with other more powerful, addictive narcotics and psychoactive drugs, such as Ritalin, that are legally prescribed in every state. What everyone should really be concerned about is the over prescribing of antibiotics nationwide, which is leading to antibiotic resistance among the organisms that these medications have always been effective against. Medical science is now racing to develop new antibiotics before a new bacteria comes along that is immune to everything we now have.

In a statement in favor of Proposition 215, Richard Cohen, MD, and Ivan Silverberg, MD, and Anna Boyce, RN, argue that the federal government advises patients to take marinol instead of marijuana, but that marinol "can cost $30,000 a year and is often less reliable and less effective." They further point out that one in five Americans will have cancer, and 20 million may develop glaucoma and ask, "shouldn't our government let physicians prescribe any medicine capable of relieving suffering?"

It seems that the most compelling argument against the "war on drugs" is that it hasn't worked since its inception. During the Bush administration alone, about $100 million was spent on this foolish endeavor. A big reason for its massive failure is that only about $30 million has been spent on treatment and education, with the balance going to enforcement. And what about enforcement? Every couple of months we see a story about the "biggest drug bust since..." (fill in the blank). "The arrest of the leaders of this cartel will certainly have a tremendous effect upon the amount of drugs flowing into the US." Currently, the number of federal inmates doing time on drug related charges is greater than the total federal prison population was in 1980. But open the newspaper and you see stories which tell of how easy it is for teenagers to buy drugs. "Most of the students we spoke with," a typical story reads, "tell us that they can purchase drugs within about a half hour of being asked." None of the supposedly harsh measures in place have made one iota of difference. Yet state and local governments continue to pour record amounts of money into prison construction and pass useless laws such as those increasing the penalties for those caught selling drugs within so many feet of a school, and attempt to pass others such as the Miami Beach proposal which would notify employers of anyone arrested for drug use even before the case went to trial.

Politicians aren't helping matters either. President Clinton, ever mindful of what the conservative voters want to hear, has proposed, first, drug testing of anyone arrested on federal charges, again even before adjudication of guilt. Mark Kleiman of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who helped develop the idea, said that this procedure would greatly reduce the nation's drug problem because "we are taking away the best customers of the drug dealers." This is utter nonsense. The "best customers" of drug dealers are average, everyday people who will probably never see a federal charge brought against them. Most recently, Clinton has proposed drug testing of teenagers as a requirement to being issued a drivers license. This proposal is nothing new; it was originally the brainchild of noneother than Pete Wilson when he was a US Senator in 1988. But most teens get their licenses at age 16, in some states 15. All they have to do is be clean at that point and get their license. From then on, there is no provision for further testing. Most teen drug users are over 16 to begin with. Both these ideas are going to cost a lot of money and do nothing to combat the real teen drug problem: alcohol. It is alcohol that is killing teens behind the wheel, not marijuana.

Bob Dole, for his part, criticized Clinton's approaches as being not enough but offered instead the idea of calling out the National Guard to stop the flow of drugs into the country (how?) while hoping that his new "Just don't do it" slogan, a pathetic attempt at reviving Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" mantra, would keep children from using drugs.

As far as children are concerned, it's cool to have a slogan, make posters, enter essay contests, and join clubs, but once a child becomes a teenager and realizes that teenagers are infinitely more intelligent than adults, all that silliness goes out the window. Teens will try drugs if they want to and they won't be buying them from adults hanging out around the high schools. They will be buying them from their friends. It is up to adults to give teenagers what they need most: the truth. We lose the confidence and trust of youth when they realize that our message of zero tolerance doesn't reflect reality.

The future
To be sure, there will be challenges to the initiative which passed in California. The first problem will be with that portion of the act which states that Californians will have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes when a physician has determined that a person's health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of "cancer, anorexia, AIDS,...or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." It's the "any other illness" part which will cause the problem. Court challenges will claim that it is too broad. It may very well be. Second, the federal government will surely see this as a beginning to the erosion of its worthless drug policy and likely step in with some sort of legal challenge of its own. Congress, ever eager to appear as tough on drugs to their "Soccer Moms" back home (who themselves more likely than not fired up the bong at some point in their younger days), may very well entertain the idea of legislation which would make initiatives such as California's and Arizona's illegal (much like the hurriedly passed socalled Defense of Marriage Act was intended to prevent states from recognizing samesex marriages).

The stage is set for great debate, as if there hasn't been enough of that already. Given the courts' propensity for throwing out such items because of "vagueness," we will indeed be lucky if Proposition 215 holds up to the barrage of legal challenges certain to come its way. I can't help but recall Joycelyn Elders' suggestion that we study the legalization of drugs, a suggestion that cost her her job as Surgeon General. If sane minds prevail, we may finally see Elders' suggestion taken seriously.

Don't forget the 7th Annual Hempfest to be held on December 7 at the Downtown Community Plaza. If you believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, if you believe that marijuana has many legitimate uses (paper, fiber, fuel, medicine), then come out and show your support. If you would like a copy of California's Proposition 215, stop by the Civic Media Center at 1028 W. University Ave.

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