Blog of Rights

Medical Marijuana Crackdown: A Wholly Avoidable Health Care Crisis

By Sam Ritchie, ACLU at 12:42pm

We here at the ACLU fear that there is a senseless, needless and wholly avoidable health care crisis coming, one that will impact the lives of clients we've come to care about very much. Clients like Valerie, who has suffered from daily grand mal seizures resulting from severe head injuries sustained in a car accident, could soon be unable to get her medication, the only drug she has found which has been able to keep her free of full-blown seizures. And Keith, an Assistant District Attorney and retired Air Force Veteran, could lose access to his medication, which increases his appetite and reduces nausea associated with AIDS-related wasting. And Joseph, a married father of two, could soon no longer be able to take his medication, which he uses to manage pain and side effects related to an inoperable brain tumor and his chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

If these three — and countless others like them — lose access to their medication, it will be because the Department of Justice (DOJ) goes back on a policy that they created, just over a year ago, to respect the democratic will of citizens of states that have passed medical marijuana laws.

In October 2009, U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memo to U.S. Attorneys which instructed them not to prioritize the prosecution of "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." At the time, we were overjoyed at this change in policy; after the many years of uncertainty caused by the Bush DOJ threats against those who were simply trying to abide by state medical marijuana laws, the guidance in Ogden's memo was a welcome change.

But recently, U.S. Attorneys in Washington, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Rhode Island and Vermont have issued letters threatening to prosecute people under federal law who are acting in accordance with the medical marijuana laws in their states. As reported last weekend in the New York Times, it seems as if this is a sudden return to the bad old days, where patients and providers who are following the letter of state law will have to live in constant fear of federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents swooping in to arrest them and deprive patients of their medicine.

And this about-face has already had definite consequences: state officials in Washington, Montana and Rhode Island have revised medical marijuana plans, citing threats from the feds. If these U.S. Attorneys make good on their threats, Valerie, Keith, Joseph and thousands of other patients who depend on medical marijuana could lose access to the medicine they need to manage their symptoms.

That's why we've called on Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to make it clear that the DOJ will not prioritize prosecution of people who comply with state medical marijuana laws, in keeping with previous DOJ policy laid out in Ogden's memo. With polling showing as much as 81 percent of the American public in support of medical marijuana laws, it'd not only be the right thing to do, it'd also be a triumph of states' right to take innovative steps to promote public health while preserving public safety.

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