In a truly grass-roots movement, voters in California and Arizona passed initiatives in November that legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. However, this action seems to have cast people on both sides of the ballot into a legal fog that shows few signs of lifting.
In California, 56 percent of the voters approved of Proposition 215 which legalizes marijuana cultivation, possession and use for medical reasons, with no prescription required. In Arizona, 65 percent of the voters adopted Proposition 200 which goes even further, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana, heroin, LSD and methamphetamines for critically ill patients if there is a scientific basis for the use of the drugs.
However, growing or possessing marijuana is still illegal under U.S. statutes and those found guilty can be punished as part of America's $13.2 billion a year war on drugs.
"We are now in such uncharted territory," Thomas A. Constantine, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Associated Press. "Most Americans have not yet grasped the concept of what happened in the last month in California and Arizona."
As the implications of the vote settles in, politicians, law enforcement officials, the medical community, and churches are struggling to find their way through a maze of questions that will determine how America deals with this drug.
Proponents of the initiatives point to the mountains of mostly anecdotal evidence that marijuana helps relieve the suffering of people with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.
While there is a prescription synthetic form of the drug, known as Marinol, cancer and AIDS patients find it produces nausea and can cost up to $30,000 a year. Marijuana, either smoked or eaten mixed with food, also has significantly fewer side effects than morphine and other stronger narcotics given to address certain symptoms.
Although they are sympathetic to the suffering of those who claim to need marijuana, opponents of the new laws claim a dangerous back door is being opened that will lead to the decriminalization of this and other drugs.
They point to the fact that 75 percent of the $2 million spent on getting the Initiative passed in California, was put up by five out-of-state people who advocate the decriminalization of pot.
The reaction of law makers and enforcers has been mixed. On Dec. 3, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey told a Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration was still "puzzling through" ways to get around Proposition 215. He reported that they are exploring ways to deputize state and local officers to act as federal agents in seizing the drug and making arrests.
Among the concerns expressed by law enforcement officials: there are no limits on how much marijuana can be grown or consumed for medical purposes. There is also no limit on what maladies qualify for treatment. Is stress, for example, a medical condition that could be relieved by the drug, they ask? And, who qualifies as a care giver?
"It's going to be a big mess," Tom Gorman, a California Narcotics Officers Association spokesman, told The Los Angeles Times.
Within the medical community, opinion is also divided. The California Academy of Family Physicians and the California Nurses Association, for example, supported the Initiative. The California Medical Association did not.
However, since the election, the groups seem to have united in the hope that the legalization of marijuana in California and Arizona will prompt federal authorities to fund extensive clinical research that provides definitive proof of the role that the drug does or does not play in medical treatment.
At places like Dolores Street Baptist Church, in San Francisco, such studies seem redundant in the face of the suffering people who come to them to receive doses of medicinal marijuana to relieve their pain.
The church began offering a very regulated ministry to distribute the drug even before Proposition 215 was passed.
While they "mourn" the fact that some people abuse marijuana, the congregation also told the Associated Baptist Press that to restrict the drug's medicinal uses "is to deny Christ's call to offer healing to all of God's people in need."
In a public statement, weeks before the election they announced, "At times, Christ's call for healing stands in opposition to the laws of the state. When this happens, we humbly, prayerfully and earnestly must respond as Christ would respond."
But Dolores Street's civil disobedience also raises the issue of the growing recreational use of marijuana among young people who have grown up watching laws that prohibit the use of pot ignored, or winked at. Many now report believing that the illegality and negative effects of marijuana are meaningless rhetoric, mouthed by the more than 70 million adults in the U.S. (Including the president, vice president and speaker of the House) who have used marijuana at some time in their lives.
Reports in the Washington Post indicate that 61 percent of juveniles arrested in D.C. tested positive for marijuana use. At the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, three quarters of the students reported trying marijuana and at least one quarter are "regular users." Such statistics are now surprisingly consistent throughout the country.
What message will the Proposition passed in California and Arizona have on the future use of marijuana in the United States? The jury's still out and the fog just seems to get thicker.
However, federal officials predict that definite policies towards these new laws will be devised and implemented by the beginning of the new year.
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