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Wacky Grassley, not tobaccy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 23, 2009 7:30 AM

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has indicated that he opposes President Obama’s recent changes to how the federal Drug Enforcement Agency approaches medical marijuana. Grassley’s tired, predictable response demonstrates the extent to which he is out of touch on this issue.

During the course of the grueling 2008 election cycle, Obama promised to end federal raids against medical marijuana dispensaries operating in states that legally allow them. Though this pledged policy change didn’t occur immediately after the president’s inauguration, administration officials have now made it clear that Obama intends to keep his word.

“Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people and organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana, and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law,” Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters at the Justice Department according to the Associated Press. The federal government would continue to go after those who “use medical marijuana laws as a shield” for other crimes, he said.

But it wasn’t the possibility of people abusing the system that upset Grassley. The Iowa senator made it clear that he is strongly opposed to medical marijuana in the abstract.

“This attorney general is not doing health-care reform any good,” ABC News reported that Grassley said. “The first rule of medicine — ‘do no harm’ — is being violated by the attorney general with this decision.”
Grassley went on to assert that the Obama administration’s new policy is counterproductive because marijuana is a gateway drug that leads people to try and then become addicted to harder drugs, such as methamphetamine. However, this common prohibitionist claim is highly dubious.

One can easily find studies purporting to show alternatively that marijuana use does or does not lead to the abuse of more harmful drugs. But groups such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws only tend to tout research that supports the very positions they exist to advocate. Thus, as is often the case with such politically charged issues, it’s difficult to separate fact from spin.

In such a situation it makes sense for the federal government to step back, allow the people of each state to choose their own policies, and wait to see what actually works best. To his credit, that’s exactly what Obama seems to be doing.

Currently, 13 states allow for the legal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Michigan is the most recent state to pass such a law, which was enacted through a referendum that garnered the support of 63 percent of voters last November.

But unyielding prohibitionists such as Grassley need not look outside of Iowa to find serious political figures who support medical marijuana. Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, has drafted a bill that would allow some patients in this state to use the plant.

“The bill is essentially an attempt to address the suffering that people are in,” he told The Daily Iowan, giving cancer and multiple sclerosis as examples of painful diseases that marijuana could potentially ease. “People with severe medical conditions are not being helped by conventional medications. Studies have found that marijuana is an effective treatment.”

Bolkcom’s bill didn’t advance to the point where the Iowa Senate could vote on it this year, but he said he would try again in the future. And time seems to be on his side. Though Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, doesn’t think the legislation Bolkcom drafted provides enough checks and balances, he told the DI that he was supportive of the general concept.

How the federal government’s experiment in allowing states to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes will work out remains to be seen. Many of those who approve of the new policy remain cautious regarding Obama’s commitment to it.

“Thus far, it’s been hard to tell if the administration’s statements on medical marijuana are style or substance,” libertarian drug-war critic Radley Balko wrote on his blog. “But if Sen. Charles Grassley is pissed off about it, that’s a pretty sign that they’re doing the right thing.”


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