My father died from an addiction to a dangerous drug when I was 13. The pushers who sold it to him remain in business, and the federal and state governments seem to like that fact. I'm not bitter, but whenever I hear the arguments against medical marijuana in Western states, I'm struck by the hypocrisy.
Cigarettes infected my father with lung cancer. At the end, in 1962, he was a walking skeleton, home from the hospital to die in his own bed. Of course he bore some responsibility, because inhaling smoke isn't a good idea. But while he was a heavy user during the 1950s and early 1960s, the tobacco corporations knew their products were lethal and addictive. They covered up that research and resisted attempts to warn smokers of the risks.
These days the tobacco pushers are doing well. They've developed hundreds of additives to make their cigarettes more potent and addicting, expanding sales in other countries while keeping about 45 million people in this country hooked. The federal government has given growers more than $1 billion in subsidies since 1995, and the feds and state governments impose taxes on tobacco sales that bring in revenue while not being high enough to drive the pushers out of business.
State governments also promote other dangerous vices such as alcohol use and gambling. They levy taxes that don't suppress those industries, and sell lottery tickets and licenses to run liquor stores, casinos and other gambling operations. Their regulations, including various smoking bans, merely nibble around the edges, while they allow or encourage people to become addicts to tobacco, booze and gambling. In rough numbers, every year 80,000 people in the United States die from excessive alcohol use, 450,000 die from tobacco use and millions suffer the consequences of being pathological gamblers.
Meanwhile, 16 states and the District of Columbia have OK'd medical marijuana, and nine of those states are in the West, ranging from Alaska to Arizona. The state programs are usually created by popular ballot measures, since there's widespread agreement that marijuana is an effective treatment for ailments associated with chemotherapy, seizures, insomnia and chronic pain. Yet medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and recently the Obama administration has unleashed federal agents to crack down on growers and patients. Some state governments also resist the spirit of the people's medical marijuana laws.
In my state of Montana, 62 percent of the voters approved medical marijuana in a 2004 ballot measure, and about 30,000 Montanans are registered to use it. But earlier this year, the Montana Legislature, controlled by conservative Republicans, overreacted to looseness in the program -- more than half of the users, or patients, for example, are young people supposedly getting marijuana for chronic pain. First the Legislature passed an outright repeal of medical marijuana, but after Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a repeal, state legislators passed a second hostile bill under the guise of reform, and the governor let it become law without his signature.
The Republican "reform" aims for a 90 percent reduction in the number of Montana medical marijuana patients. They'll either have to grow their own or get it for free from someone who's volunteering to grow it for no more than three patients. The reform also makes it more difficult to get approval for treatment of chronic pain.
Montana medical marijuana advocates are trying to fight back. They've persuaded a judge to block aspects of the legislative restrictions, though the state attorney general is appealing that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. Medical marijuana advocates are also circulating petitions, trying to gather enough signatures to block the reform altogether, or at least take the issue to the voters again. But they're running short of money and their efforts might fall short.
It's worth noting that when Montana's Legislature was about to begin this year's session, the governor said he was tired of the heavy boozing that occurs around every session. He said many legislators, their staffers and lobbyists are "the biggest boozers," and cited statistics that show liquor sales in Helena, the capital city, increase by 24 percent during the sessions. Then shortly after this session began, the chairman of the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee was arrested for drinking while driving. The Legislature also gave casinos permission to attract more customers with bigger bingo prizes and new video games, and it squelched a proposal for a higher tax on cigarettes.
It's not just that the arguments against medical marijuana seem weak and unconvincing; hardest of all to swallow is our hypocrisy.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.