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Originally published May 15, 2009 at 3:46 PM | Page modified May 15, 2009 at 4:05 PM

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Guest columnist

Changing federal view of medical-marijuana laws creates opportunity

The Obama administration seems to be softening the federal government's view of the use of medical marijuana, writes guest columnist Ronald Fraser. That means opportunity for states with medical-marijuana laws, such as Washington, to develop policies surrounding the issue.

Special to The Times

AT long last, policymakers in the nation's capital have begun to draw a line between illicit drug use and the legitimate use of drugs as medicine. In March, President Obama's attorney general announced the federal government will no longer prosecute medical-marijuana clinics that operate in compliance with state laws. This means lawmakers in Olympia are now free to decide — without federal interference — how to regulate medical marijuana within Washington state.

Thirteen states, including Washington, have pioneered the removal of criminal penalties for the use of medical marijuana and actively regulate how, with a medical doctor's recommendation, marijuana is made available for patients with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, severe pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and other chronic conditions.

Until now, federal agents have disregarded these state laws. For example, since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, drug-enforcement agents have raided more than 100 marijuana-distribution centers there.

The first step has been taken with President Obama's tacit acknowledgment that closing down state-regulated marijuana clinics is a misuse of taxpayers' money and harmful to Americans coping with serious illnesses.

Many thousands of ill people attest that smoking, vaporizing or orally ingesting marijuana relieves pain, nausea and other symptoms far more effectively than Marinol, a pharmaceutically available synthetic version of marijuana. The federal government still officially maintains — contrary to solid medical evidence — that marijuana has no medicinal value.

Perhaps the pioneer states will now serve as public-policy laboratories for other states. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocate for legalizing medical marijuana, 14 states never have passed a law dealing with medical marijuana and 23 states have limited legislative experience with using marijuana for medical purposes.

As state lawmakers consider introducing medical marijuana in the future they can, and should, draw on the lessons learned in Washington and other states already allowing the use of medical marijuana to avoid pitfalls along the way.

Marijuana is not the only targeted medical drug. In all 50 states, federal raids can still close down pain clinics and arrest pain-management physicians who prescribe large doses of opioids, highly effective, legal painkillers made from opium or synthetics with the properties of opiate narcotics.

Dr. Joel Hochman, director of the National Foundation for the Treatment of Pain in Houston, Texas, says these raids on so-called "pill mills" are making it too risky for many doctors to accept patients in chronic pain and that, with help from the media, paints a false picture that the streets are awash in drugs carelessly handed out by unprincipled doctors. Instead, he claims, these clinics provide last-resort care to largely uninsured or underinsured blue-collar and other limited-income workers, many with work-related injuries, who can afford only a five-minute visit at high-volume, low-cost, low-profit clinics.

To stay in business, these clinics must see 60 to 100 patients each day. With this level of traffic, doctors can make errors and patients can lie about their ailments — making the clinics easy targets for federal agents.

Instead of getting drugs off the streets, Hochman says, closing down these pain clinics will "drive patients into the streets, seeking relief from their suffering. Their choices become: Score hydrocodone off the street; score heroin off the street; drown their pain with alcohol. No one can tolerate unrelieved pain." His bottom line is: "Wake up, America. The dope lords are making billions. The little pain clinics in the strip shopping centers sure aren't."

What to do? This is a rare opportunity for elected officials from coast to coast, and on Capitol Hill, to take a long, hard look at how harsh drug laws are undermining medical care in America. For the millions of people desperately coping with chronic ailments, let's not waste it.

Ronald Fraser writes on public-policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington, D.C.,-based civil-liberties organization. Write him at: fraserr@erols.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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