The Des Moines Sunday Register
January 5, 1997, Page 3C.

Clarence PAGE

Marijuana's reasonable medical uses

        An elderly man called CNN's daytime "Oprah"-style talk show, "Talkback."  The topic: medical uses for marijuana.
        The studio audience, made up of ordinary American folks, listened quietly as the elderly man's voice wafted over them.  He described his pain and sadness at watching his cancer-stricken wife suffer through the agonies of chemotherapy.  Then he described how he learned to break a law he thought he would never break.  He went out and shopped for some marijuana.
        "I'm 74 years old and I'm a law-abiding citizen.  But I went out on the street and I bought it," he said.  His soft voice grew raspy with emotion.  "And I let my wife have some comfort before she died."
        With that, the man stopped talking and the audience of ordinary American folks did something extraordinary.  They broke spontaneously into applause.
        They'd never find a jury in this audience to convict that man, I thought.  It is one thing to oppose medical marijuana in the abstract.  It is quite another to oppose when a real flesh-and-blood case of suffering and desperation is facing you.
        Unfortunately, politicians don't always have to face people with real flesh-and-blood problems.  They only have to face their political opponents.  Perhaps this explains why the Clinton administration is following its predecessors by turning a blind eye to common sense.  To avoid the possibility of misuse by a few, the administration acts to prevent pain-relieving, life-affirming relief for the many.
        The same day as the CNN show, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey announced the government would revoke the licenses and even arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana for their patients.
        So much for the November ballot issue in California and Arizona that decided to allow doctors to recommend the use of marijuana for pain relief and other medicinal reasons.  McCaffrey denounced those expressions of public sentiments as "a Cheech and Chong drug policy," as if voters were just too ignorant to know what they were getting into.
        Instead, McCaffrey defended a sort of "Keystone Kops" policy -- except it's not funny.  It is just pathetic.
        Let's get real: Juries will be no more eager to convict a doctor who offers marijuana to someone suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma or multiple sclerosis than the Michigan juries that repeatedly have refused to convict Dr. Jack Kevorkian for assisting suicides.
        Perhaps the most glaring example is the administrative law judge for the Drug Enforcement Administration who declared in a 69-page ruling in 1988 that marijuana was "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."
        After presiding over a 16-year legal battle and hearing testimony by hundreds of witnesses in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington, Judge Francis L. Young wrote: "The evidence ... clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision."
        Further: "It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record."
        What was the DEA's response to this finding by its own administrative law judge?  Simple.  The DEA dismissed it for "ignoring the bulk of medical evidence," according to a DEA lawyer.
        Yet, the bulk of evidence against marijuana's medical use is not very conclusive at all.  It is constantly qualified with "could's" and "may's" and "maybe's."  Why is this so much more persuasive than the evidence in favor of medical marijuana?
        Yet, even though the Food and Drug Administration has approved studies of the effects of marijuana on AIDS wasting syndrome by Dr. Donald Abrams of the University of California at San Francisco, the DEA has refused to grant Abrams access to medical marijuana.  Other university researchers report similar complaints.  The DEA seems to be uninterested in research that fails to support its reefer madness.
        That's what I mean by "Keystone Kops."  This is one of the most pathetic conflicts between government agencies over an issue of health since the federal government began to condemn tobacco through one branch while subsidizing it through others.
        Meanwhile, the suffering needlessly suffer even more -- unless someone breaks the law to help them get "some comfort" before they die.
        Clinton administration spokesmen fret that legalizing marijuana for medical use will only encourage young people to think drugs are not dangerous.  Yet, insisting that a popular drug like marijuana is more dangerous than it really is only encourages kids to think other truly dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine or LSD are not as dangerous as grown-ups say they are.
        Where is President Clinton?  Here's a group of patients who do not need him to feel their pain.  They just need him to help relieve it.

CLARENCE PAGE writes for The Chicago Tribune.