Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thinking About Medical Marijuana

Proposal 1 on the ballot in Michigan in November concerns medical marijuana. It would allow people who say that they need marijuana for pain treatment to register with the state of Michigan. This would allow them to use and grow small amounts of marijuana without violating Michigan law. It would not change federal law that makes marijuana illegal, but it would mean that only the federal government could prosecute marijuana possession. Similar proposals have passed in about a dozen other states.

What should we think of this proposition? Both supporters and opponents agree that marijuana can be used to relieve pain. They disagree about whether smoked medical marijuana is more effective than the pill form which contains the chemical in marijuana that relieves pain.

Whichever form is more effective, it should not be hard to conclude that people who legitimately use marijuana to relieve pain should not be prosecuted. At present, this is uncommon, but not unheard of.

The question then is whether Proposal 1 would only protect legitimate users, or whether it would create other undesirable consequences. The proposal's backers have been accused of wanting to legalize drugs, and in many cases this is probably true. Nonetheless, the proposal should be considered on its own merits unless it would somehow create a 'slippery slope' to drug legalization. As none of the other states that passed such proposals has gone further, this does not seem to be a serious objection.

Another potential problem is whether the proposal would allow people who do not really have a medical need to get marijuana. Could users forge prescriptions, or obtain them from a handful of sympathetic doctors willing to bend the rules? Something like this seems to have occurred in California, which previously passed a medical marijuana proposal. Supporters and opponents of this proposal disagree about whether the Michigan proposal is different in a way that fixes these problems.

Of course, forthright advocates of marijuana legalization will not find these to be compelling objections. Before one advocates such a position, some questions should be asked. Is there reliable data on the health effects of marijuana use? Does drug addiction nullify the autonomy necessary for someone to have a right to liberty? Is marijuana a 'gateway drug' that leads to the use of harder drugs? Would legalizing marijuana result in higher crime rates than keeping it illegal?

This author does not claim to have good answers to these questions. Most of these questions are technical and depend on empirical data. Existing studies seem to have conflicting conclusions. Neither advocates of drug legalization or the government are necessarily credible sources of information.

Another objection raised by opponents of the proposal is that it would mandate that employers not prohibit legal marijuana users from employment. If so, then the proposal would advance freedom for one group while restricting it for another. In such case, one could reasonably side with the group one favors more. Supporters dispute that the proposal would do this, however.

You can learn something about a proposal from who supports it and who opposes it. Most newspapers seem to support the proposal. Various law enforcement and family values groups oppose it. Most democrats and libertarians support it. Most conservative Republicans oppose it. There are exceptions, however, as very conservative state rep. Fulton Sheen supports the proposal.

If a voter is unsure about a proposal, is there a default position that should be taken? For conservatives, the default position is to oppose change (support the status quo) because there are more ways to make things worse than better. In other words, there are more bad ideas than good ideas. On the other hand, the libertarian default position is to support freedom.

This essay has no definite conclusion. But the questions contained herein are the sort that a voter debating Proposal 1 should ask.

For more information see the following organizations.
Oppose: Citizens Protecting Michigan's Kids
Support: Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care

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