Like the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, marijuana advocates suffered a setback at the polls last month. By a margin of 2 to 1, Nevada voters trounced a much-publicized proposal to legalize cannabis for personal use. B
ut the Bush administration would be ill-served to mistake this landslide for an endorsement of its zero-tolerance marijuana policy, any more than a net gain of two seats in the Senate puts a nationwide stamp of approval on conservative doctrine.
In fact, a chasm is opening between the federal government and the states over the medical use of cannabis. States have begun to make the distinction between medical and recreational uses of the plant, even when Washington can't seem to tell the difference.
Eight states -- all but one of them in the West -- have approved cannabis for medical purposes. Nine out of ten Westerners live in states with medical marijuana legislation, and all but Hawaii's were passed by popular vote. But federal law recognizes no such exception. Since John Ashcroft took over the Department of Justice, Washington has been forcing the issue with increasing vigor.
The conflict has come to a head most dramatically in California, where federal drug teams have cracked down on at least 12 clubs that distribute cannabis to patients. In the last four months, U.S. agents have raided the homes of state-sanctioned cannabis users in Washington and Oregon as well.
It is no longer just woolly-headed stoners who want to relax the absolute prohibition on pot. According to a 2002 Time/CNN poll, 80 percent of Americans asked approve of using marijuana for medical purposes. Editorial boards in such conservative bastions as Orange County, Calif., have asked federal drug officials to call off the dogs. And after a high-profile federal bust on the California coast, a cannabis club distributed its medical marijuana to patients in front of city hall, at the invitation of Santa Cruz officials.
Medical-marijuana statutes have led officials to set norms for the acceptable use of cannabis. Throughout much of California, county sheriffs and district attorneys have spelled out how much marijuana a patient may raise and possess. In states such as Oregon, Nevada and Colorado, the state maintains a registry of patients authorized to take cannabis, and medical users have even gone to court to recover pot seized from them by local police.
Marijuana advocates display their own set of confusions. They mistook the widespread support of medicinal use for a bandwagon that would put cannabis on a par with alcohol. But once pollsters got beyond the issue of medical use, they found greater resistance. Only 34 percent of those questioned in this year's Time/CNN poll backed recreational use of marijuana -- a sentiment reflected in the Nevada measure's defeat. Whether that's good public policy, it is the current state of public opinion.
The blindness of cannibis promoters is a mirror image of the federal insistence that all use of marijuana must be eradicated. Fortunately, Western customs of common sense and practicality have cultivated a more nuanced approach to the drug, reflected in our medical-marijuana laws.
If the Bush administration continues to insist on a zero-tolerance policy, it pits itself against the poster children of medical marijuana -- those cancer sufferers and AIDS patients who rely on marijuana to curb their nausea and increase their appetite. An obvious way out is to leave the matter to the states to sort out what is and is not legitimate medical use; to decide when a recreational user is trying to hide behind a medical exemption.
One reason the Justice Department's position seems so absurd is that it pretends drug law is a matter of moral absolutes. But bans on mind-altering substances aren't written in stone; they're more accurately a matter of political choice and social convention. When my parents were growing up, the FBI hounded bootleggers who supplied liquor in defiance of Prohibition. Marijuana smokers had nothing to fear. By the beginning of the Second World War, the situation was reversed.
In prosecuting medical cannabis users, the federal government is showing its disdain for state choices. Like Attorney General Ashcroft's attack on Oregon's assisted-suicide law, the federal crusade against medical marijuana reflects the paternalistic, father-knows-best side of the current administration. With sleeper terrorist cells abroad in the land, surely the Justice Department has more important assignments for its agents.
Seth Zuckerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Vashon,Washington.
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