Efforts to legalize marijuana make for strange politics, as evidenced by a recent request made by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who want the federal government to recognize the substance’s therapeutic value. Gregoire, a Democrat, and Chafee, a Republican-turned-Independent, take issue with the Obama administration, which has unexpectedly been cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries. Last week, the governors from opposite coasts petitioned the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana, which since 1972 has been on the Schedule I drug list. That’s the same category as LSD, heroin and methamphetamine, which have no medical value.
However, a growing body of medical experts (and most voters in Washington) argue that weed — indeed — has legitimate medical uses. The governors asked the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would allow it to be prescribed by doctors, just as they can prescribe opiates. Reclassifying marijuana so that it could be sold in pharmacies has long been sought by marijuana activists, but in recent years support for such an action has spread among professional medical groups. Gregoire and Chafee may seem like unlikely flag-carriers because both have faced criticism in their states for killing proposals passed by their legislatures to legalize dispensaries.
In April, Gregoire vetoed sections of a bill that aimed to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, saying she could not approve a measure that might put state workers at risk of federal criminal charges. The two U.S. attorneys in the state warned the governor that state employees would not be immune from prosecution even if the closest they came to the contraband was signing a permit allowing someone else to grow it or use it. We think that’s an overreaction from the U.S. attorneys, who could choose to make marijuana a low priority in a state where a majority of voters favor medical use, or at least did so when last asked. In 1998, 60 percent of Washington’s voters supported medical cannabis. Washington is one of 16 states with laws recognizing that marijuana can be used to alleviate pain and treat glaucoma, not just get healthy people buzzed.
Reclassifying marijuana to Class II wouldn’t put $20 packets of “Maui Wowie” into every convenience store, but would align federal law with a position taken by 16 states, thousands of doctors and tens of thousands of legitimate patients. A reclassification would allow local governments such as the Castle Rock City Council to move forward with their own ordinances. Castle Rock has delayed a vote on becoming the first city in Cowlitz County to allow group medical marijuana gardens because of the conflicting state and federal laws. Washington law does allow groups of medical marijuana patients to form collective gardens, and those with medical marijuana permits might sue if their legal gardens are prohibited.
We’ll save a discussion of arguments for and against wider decriminalization of marijuana for another time. But we agree with the American Medical Association, Washington State Medical Association dozens of other medical groups. It’s time to reclassify marijuana so it can be prescribed, and we commend governors Gregoire and Chafee for sticking their necks out in favor of such action.
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