The Supreme Court's ruling this week on the use of marijuana for medical purposes came in a California case, but it deserves a close look here in Alabama. During the regular session of the Legislature, a measure to allow the medical use of marijuana under tightly controlled circumstances was debated, but the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee urged his colleagues not to vote on the bill until the Supreme Court ruled in the California case.
That ruling came Monday, and was a huge disappointment to many who see the therapeutic effects of marijuana for some disease sufferers as justification for allowing its use in certain cases. In a 6-3 decision, the court held that those who use marijuana for medical purposes can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws.
The majority opinion notes that the court is not making a judgment about the value of marijuana for medical purposes, but does find that the federal regulation of homegrown marijuana as interstate commerce is permissible under the Constitution.
Here in Alabama, the medical use of marijuana is a ticklish subject in a state with notoriously harsh drug laws. However, as the Advertiser argued during the debate over the bill by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, there is a strong case to be made for taking the side of compassion and allowing closely regulated use of marijuana for medical purposes rather than rigidly making its use and possession a crime in all cases.
There is ample evidence that some medical conditions, particularly some that involve chronic pain, respond better to marijuana than to conventional pharmaceuticals. That provides a legitimate medical basis for a serious debate of the bill.
At the same times, there is also plenty of legitimate concern that allowing the medical use of marijuana would undercut the anti-drug messages aimed at youth. The president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that allowing the medical use of marijuana "gives credibility to a drug that is mind-altering and would be abused."
But the medical community is divided on the issue. Some physicians contend that the benefits to patients outweigh any such risks. Dr. Michael Saag, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and director of the AIDS center there, says the blanket ban on marijuana use is "anachronistic" and reflects an outdated view of marijuana as having no possible useful purpose.
Unlike the California law, Hall's bill does not allow the use of homegrown marijuana for medical purposes, but instead would require it to be dispensed through prescription. It requires a diagnosis by a doctor "in the course of a bona fide physician-patient relationship" that the patient has "a debilitating medical condition and the potential benefits of the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the health risks for the qualifying patient." The Department of Public Health would issue an identification card for the qualifying patient.
To be sure, the concerns about possible abuse should not be discounted, but there should be some way to allow the closely regulated medical use of marijuana for alleviating the suffering of people for whom conventional pharmaceuticals are not effective.