The Supreme Court
has outlawed a medication that eases pain
in terminally ill
patients' last days. On May 14, the court unanimously ruled that under federal law
couldn’t be used or distributed for any purpose, medical
or otherwise. The ruling strikes a blow to Proposition
215 – passed by California voters in 1996 – which allows patients with physically debilitating diseases such as cancer and AIDS
to obtain small amounts of marijuana.
Unfortunately, this decision reflects our country's obsession with carrying out an ineffective drug war at the expense of social welfare and health. The extraordinary emphasis placed on combating drug distribution and recreational usage in the United States has made it easier for the government to disregard the medical value of drugs like marijuana.
And instead of dealing with drug addicts by providing treatment, the government spends money to imprison them. The skyrocketing amount of money allocated in the federal budget to fighting drug use shows this. This year, $19.2 billion was reserved in the federal budget to counter drug use; compare this to the $1 billion used for the same purpose in 1980. Not surprisingly, the bulk of these funds – more than two-thirds – is utilized for law enforcement alone. That means less than a third of the drug budget goes to treatment.
But the government needs to start rethinking its approach to combating drug use. Even former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey stated we should take the resources used to fight drugs and "draw them into effective drug treatment." The Bush administration, along with Attorney General John Ashcroft and Drug Czar-designate John Walters, should heed McCaffrey's words, especially since they have stated their desire to continue the failed war on drugs. In fact, one of Walters' priorities is to escalate the battle against drug production in Latin America, including Colombia – even though $1.3 billion has already been allocated to be spent there over the next two years. Ironically, Bush boasts about "smaller government," but is eager to spend our tax money to fund a drug war thousands of miles away.
The criminalization of drugs has unnecessarily politicized this issue. Patients are now footing the bill to advance conservative agendas. Perhaps Justice Clarence Thomas has never had the experience of being unable to swallow food – after all, he doesn't believe marijuana should be used "even when the patient is seriously ill and lacks alternative avenues for relief," as he stated in a footnote in the court's majority opinion.
And it's certainly not surprising that the court's conservative majority, in ruling against states' rights in this case, has added to the belief that they are politically motivated. Though we recognize that federal law reigns supreme over state law, the continuous swing between favoring state and federal rights will probably lead to contradictory precedents.
Nobody has the right to deny someone his or her personal comfort if they can achieve that comfort without hurting or infringing on the rights of others. Respecting another's necessities and beliefs is key to making social progress. Plenty of doctors say marijuana alleviates pain and nausea in terminally ill patients and helps them eat. Though the law does protect the medical decisions of others, they are denying this medicine to people on their deathbeds.
For example, it's against the law for a doctor to administer a life-saving blood transfusion on a patient who is a Jehovah's Witness, a religion that opposes medical treatment involving the use of blood. But why should we favor one person's needs over another's? We shouldn't.
If a patient dependent on medical marijuana respects someone's moral opposition to certain kinds of medical treatment, such as blood transfusions, that person's desire to make the end of his or her life easier by using marijuana should be respected as well. It's time to relinquish the political fighting over medical marijuana and examine the case for what it is: a health issue. It's a shame that in an effort to curb drug use, we have become insensitive and negligent of personal health needs.
The effort to expand the war on drugs in Latin America and in the United States has turned into a war against patients as well, criminalizing legitimate forms of medical treatment. And it's truly sad and ironic that the Supreme Court, the institution responsible for ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," is behind this latest setback.