A Marijuana Crusader Defends His Healing Mission

By Ed Rosenthal

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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There is no doubt among knowledgeable physicians and researchers that marijuana is a medicine. It has proven anti-spasmodic, analgesic and anti-nausea properties, and has an incredible safety record. There are no recorded deaths from its use and overindulgence results in drowsiness and a sound sleep.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, we have an especially high percentage of HIV/AIDS cases. Three of my own neighbors have died from this disease. Although there was interest in marijuana as a medicine for glaucoma and other conditions before the epidemic, it was marijuana’s unique qualities in relieving AIDS symptoms that first attracted patients to it. It allowed them to take their drug cocktail and still lead regular lives. Tens of thousands of victims of HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and cancer therapy find marijuana to be the only medicine that relieves pain and nausea without drugging them into semi-consciousness.

The federal government, though, contends that there is no such thing as “medical marijuana.” It closed the doors to new applicants for its Federal Compassionate Use Program, which dispenses government-approved marijuana, when floods of applications came in from HIV/AIDS patients. When nongovernmental compassion programs began to form and states approached the issue, the federal government and its drug agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, claimed that medical cannabis was just a ruse, and that medical providers who distributed marijuana were merely sophisticated street dealers.

There are several reasons why the federal government opposes legalization. They revolve around politics and ideology rather than science and experience. First and foremost, though, it is an issue of jobs.

Just a few facts bring this into perspective. Seven percent of the total criminal justice system expenditures are spent jailing marijuana users. Total government expenditures on marijuana law enforcement are $15 billion a year. In 2002, there were 735,000 arrests on marijuana charges, and 88% of those arrests were for simple possession. Today there are 100,000 prisoners serving time for marijuana convictions. Think of the number of police officers, judges, lawyers and prison guards — not to mention prison construction firms and other providers of basic prison services — who are employed through marijuana’s criminalization.

It is apparent by any measure that the marijuana laws are more harmful to society and to the individual than the behavior they are attempting to regulate. Yet the federal government views any legalization of marijuana, even for sick people, as a threat to its prohibition — in which it has a vested interest. No matter that medicinal and recreational use are separate issues, just as they are with opiates and other drugs — official rhetoric about the issue of marijuana suggests that the general populace is unable to make such a distinction.

In actuality, the DEA and federal officials are the ones who are unwilling to make this distinction. Acknowledging that marijuana has any medicinal use undermines the DEA’s categorization of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, a category that is reserved for highly addictive drugs with no safe medicinal applications. If the medicinal value of marijuana were acknowledged, marijuana would have to be placed in a less restrictive category — such as Schedule 2, along with morphine, cocaine and methamphetamines. The government claims that acknowledging the medicinal value of marijuana would weaken marijuana laws as a whole.

The Bible also has quite a few laws. Most of them are admonitions against sins of commission. We learn about people who commit these sins all the time in the news: robbers, murderers, liars and other miscreants. These are the easy laws. They are clear-cut. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t stray into adultery. All of these commandments have something in common: There is a victim who is hurt by the transgression.

I was faced with a different kind of dilemma — that of committing a sin of omission — when the Oakland City Council appointed me an officer in 1998, thereby authorizing me to provide medical marijuana to patients and to induct other people into that service. I had skills in plant-growing techniques that few others had, and knew that my training could be used to alleviate pain and suffering.

Yet I hesitated out of fear of government retribution, even though as a city officer I was assured of my immunity from prosecution. Ultimately, I decided to pitch in and, I believe, made great efforts to alleviate pain and suffering.

The federal government obviously thought otherwise. A year ago, agents of the DEA, FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided my garden and arrested me. I was charged with marijuana cultivation, conspiracy and maintaining a place where the marijuana was grown. I now face up to 25 years in jail, although the judge has implied that he plans to grant me a minimal sentence. I was released on a $200,000 property bond on $500,000 bail. No matter the outcome of my sentencing, I don’t regret helping the sick. My conscience is clear.

In pre-trial motions, the judge ruled that a literal reading of the federal law, which Oakland cited when conferring immunity, was in fact a misinterpretation. At trial, I was not allowed to disclose to the jury that I was an officer of Oakland, that the marijuana was distributed for medical purposes or that I had been led to believe that what I was doing was legal.

Even more tragic for our democracy, both prosecutor and judge ordered the jurors to choose law over justice, lies over truth. But most disturbing of all is that both the prosecutor and judge want to close dispensaries altogether, forcing patients who rely on medical marijuana back to the black market. They don’t seem to care about the 30,000 patients’ health or quality of life. They treat the ill as criminals. Ultimately, they will have to deal with their sins of commission.

Ed Rosenthal, a columnist, is the author and editor of more than a dozen books. He is currently awaiting sentencing following his conviction on three felony charges for his participation in implementing California’s medical marijuana program.

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