Cowards in Washington Ignore Pot’s Benefits

No worse example exists of the moral cowardice of the federal government-implicating all three branches-than the continuing prohibition of marijuana for medical therapy.

Despite copious evidence that pot has helped to ameliorate the lives of thousands of patients suffering from cancer and AIDS-and despite burgeoning voter support for legal reform-Washington officialdom persists in its lethal devotion to prohibition. Even when a blameless woman comes before them to plead for her life, the constituted authorities seem unable to think beyond a law, more than three decades old, that has long since been superseded by science and common sense.

On Nov. 29, Angel McClary Raich appeared at the U.S. Supreme Court with her attorneys to defend her right to grow cannabis for her own medical use. Tormented for most of her life by a horrifying catalogue of ailments, including uterine fibroids, scoliosis and an inoperable brain tumor, Ms. Raich nevertheless has survived while raising two children. The 39-year-old mother and her physicians attribute her ability to overcome seizures, nausea, wasting syndrome and severe pain to the almost continuous ingestion of natural marijuana in various forms.

According to Ms. Raich, she resumed walking after three years in a wheelchair because of the relief afforded by that regimen. She now benefits from the assistance of two fellow Californians, identified only as her “caregivers,” who annually cultivate about eight pounds of marijuana for her. Yet to the authorities, her worst offense is not using the forbidden herb, but actively fighting their attempts to prosecute her and others for the act of medicating themselves.

That is how Ms. Raich ended up in the Supreme Court, two years after suing Attorney General John Ashcroft and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson. Seeking to assert the supremacy of federal law over the state referendum that legalized medical-marijuana use in 1996, those two worthies had ordered federal agents to raid California’s cooperatives and private gardens in search of marijuana plants. Ms. Raich answered that aggressive enforcement with legal papers-and eventually won an injunction against the raids in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

What is most remarkable about this problem is how impervious our politicians (and most of our judges) are to human compassion and scientific data. To enforce marijuana prohibition, they would willingly endanger the health and lives of innocent citizens-and even cast aside principles they profess to hold deeply.

Messrs. Ashcroft and Hutchinson are devout Christians of a fundamentalist stripe. Both claim to be “pro-life,” but they see no contradiction in depriving Ms. Raich and many other patients of the substance that keeps them alive. Both claim to promote “family values,” but they are determined to destroy any family with a member who needs this drug. Both would insist on “states’ rights” as a cornerstone of constitutional law, but they won’t allow any state to experiment with marijuana reform.

Tellingly, the Justice Department hasn’t even tried to argue that Ms. Raich doesn’t need her daily tokes. The government position seems to be that her need to live doesn’t matter as much as enforcing the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1970.

On this issue, there is a pervasive bipartisan blindness, epitomized by the Supreme Court justices during oral argument in Ashcroft v. Raich. More than once, they urged the Raich lawyers to petition Congress and the Food and Drug Administration to change marijuana’s legal status so that it is more easily available for research and compassionate use. Work through the system, said the justices.

Had the robed sages bothered to read the papers submitted to them, they might realize that the system doesn’t work. Dedicated scientists and advocates have been pursuing legal remedies for many years, with little result. The prejudice against pot remains sufficiently powerful to thwart reform at the federal level. (In fact, cocaine and heroin are treated with greater latitude.) Few in Congress possess the courage to demand change, while the F.D.A. and other federal agencies actively obstruct crucial research that is instead proceeding in other countries. Years ago, the government’s own scientists urged that the United States make marijuana more widely available to both patients and researchers. Democrats and Republicans alike callously ignored that plea.

In a society that still promotes alcohol and tobacco, as well as many narcotics and pharmaceuticals with severe side effects, the draconian regulation of marijuana is both illogical and cruel. That is why Americans across red and blue states from Arizona to Maine have voted repeatedly to reform those laws for the sake of the seriously ill.

In law, the validity of those state reforms will depend on an interpretation of the Constitution’s commerce clause. Before the Supreme Court rules on Ashcroft v. Raich next year, however, Congress and the Bush administration ought to consider the damage that an inhumane, outdated and stupid statute does to respect for the law and to the reputation of law enforcement.