Pot Pass


Although the initiatives in Arizona and California have attracted the most attention, many other states have recognized the medical use of marijuana to some extent.

In January, implementing a law passed by the state legislature in 1996, the Massachusetts Department of Health announced that a state-appointed panel of three physicians would issue medical marijuana certificates to patients suffering from glaucoma, asthma, and the side effects of chemotherapy. A patient with a certificate would have a prima facie defense against marijuana possession charges. "We're trying to get certificates into the hands of people who meet the medical criteria," said Public Health Commissioner David Mulligan. "Who is going to prosecute someone who has a certificate saying they have a medical condition that requires [marijuana]?"

Ohio also approved a medical marijuana law last year, allowing people charged with possession or cultivation to argue in court that they were using the drug for therapeutic purposes, provided they have a doctor's written recommendation. The law, which does not prevent prosecution or guarantee acquittal, is essentially a statutory version of the common-law medical necessity defense, which patients arrested on marijuana charges have used successfully in Idaho, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Last fall Ohio Gov. George Voinovich and Attorney General Betty Montgomery said they did not realize the medical marijuana defense was part of a sentencing bill they had both supported, and Montgomery promised to seek its repeal this year.

Similarly, legislators in Virginia, awakened by the publicity surrounding the Arizona and California initiatives, are trying to eliminate a 1979 law that allows doctors to prescribe marijuana or THC for cancer and glaucoma patients. According to a September 1996 report from the Marijuana Policy Project, Virginia was one of 23 states with current medical marijuana laws. Such laws had been repealed in seven states and had expired in four (including Arizona and California). Almost all of these statutes were passed in the late 1970s or early '80s, and either a legal source of marijuana was never available or the drug was provided as part of a research program that is now moribund.