Eleven years after Oregonians voted to allow the cultivation and use of marijuana by prescription, the Justice Department finally has conceded the obvious: Drug agents have more important things to do than fight medicinal pot.
However you feel about medical marijuana laws - and our view is that they are widely exploited by pot growers and users, especially in California - Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement Monday was a significant moment in the long campaign for a national law allowing medical marijuana use.
The decision amounts to switching on a grow light for states to cultivate medical marijuana laws without interference from the federal government. Where all this ultimately leads is unclear, but it seems likely that one or more states - perhaps including Oregon - may vote in the next year or two on even broader legalization of marijuana.
Besides Oregon, there are 13 states that have already legalized medical marijuana. But the new Justice Department guidelines are aimed primarily at California, which allows dispensaries that sell marijuana and advertise their services. Since June 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could enforce federal marijuana laws even in states permitted medical marijuana, federal agents have conducted more than 200 raids in California alone.
While we're not entirely comfortable with marijuana's hazy new legal status, the Obama administration is right to conclude that raiding dispensaries and hassling dying cancer patients over their marijuana use isn't the best use of limited law enforcement resources. But we hope that Attorney General Holder meant what he said when he pledged that the Justice Department will continue to prosecute drug traffickers who "hide behind" laws on medical marijuana.
Unlike California, Oregon doesn't allow dispensaries or any over-the-counter sales of marijuana. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which was approved in 1998, two years after California's law, permits the cultivation, possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by prescription by patients with certain medical conditions.
As of Oct. 1, according to the Department of Human Services, which administers the law, 23,873 Oregonians held medical marijuana cards issued by the state. The permits allow them to possess six mature cannabis plants, 18 seedlings and 24 ounces of usable marijuana. About 7,000 of the permit holders reported suffering from muscle-spasm disorders such as multiple sclerosis. More than 1,000 have cancer. About 4,000 suffer from nausea.
After all these years, the scientific debate over the medicinal qualities of marijuana is beside the point. There are tens of thousands of people in nearly a third of the U.S. states now using marijuana because they believe it relieves the symptoms of their illnesses.
If there's a drug war to be fought and won, it's not with these people suffering from cancer or multiple sclerosis. It's with the violent Mexican drug cartels which are using the enormous profits from their marijuana and methamphetamine sales in the United States to support other criminal enterprises.
By The Oregonian
October 24, 2009