Like the election of Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor of Minnesota, the dramatic success of this year's medical marijuana initiatives was encouraging because it irritated the right people. By margins that ranged from respectable to overwhelming, voters endorsed the medicinal use of cannabis in every jurisdiction where the issue was on the ballot.
New initiatives won in Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, while in Arizona voters overrode an attempt by the state legislature to gut a 1996 ballot measure that allowed patients to use marijuana. Initiatives in Colorado and the District of Columbia reportedly attracted sizable majorities--57 percent and 69 percent, respectively--but both measures are on hold because of legal disputes.
The issue in Colorado is whether enough valid signatures were collected to put the initiative on the ballot. The argument in D.C. is more revealing: In a rider attached to the omnibus spending bill it approved in October, Congress prohibited the use of public funds to count the vote.
Representative Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who introduced the rider, told Reason magazine, "The American people don't want federal money used to hold a referendum on the use of mind-altering substances." The results from this month's elections, coupled with nationwide polls finding that most Americans think patients should be able to obtain marijuana legally, suggest otherwise.
What are the drug warriors afraid of? "We are concerned about the mixed message that children pick up on this," says Jim McDonough, director of strategy at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
McDonough worries that condoning the medical use of marijuana will promote recreational use. But if Grandpa can get morphine to ease the pain of cancer without encouraging teenagers to shoot up, it's not clear why letting him have marijuana to relieve the nausea caused by chemotherapy will make them more likely to smoke pot.
After California voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1996, McDonough's boss, drug czar Barry McCaffrey, predicted that teenage pot use would rise. Yet the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that marijuana use among 12-to-17-year-olds in California remained unchanged (and below the national average) from 1996 to 1997.
Nor is it true that medical marijuana advocates are, as McCaffrey put it in congressional testimony last summer, "a carefully camouflaged, exorbitantly funded, well-heeled, elitist group whose ultimate goal is to legalize drug use in the United States." Most activists are mainly concerned about needless suffering among patients--the D.C. initiative, for example, was spearheaded by the AIDS group ACT-UP--and probably would be satisfied if marijuana were made available by prescription; few support a free market in drugs.
Indeed, those who think the government has no business telling adults what chemicals they may ingest tend to view the medical marijuana movement with ambivalence. The very notion of authorizing certain people in certain circumstances to use cannabis, provided they have the requisite permission from officially appointed gatekeepers, concedes the basic principle that our bodies are not ours to control.
From this perspective, decriminalizing marijuana possession in general is a more attractive approach. It's interesting to note that two-thirds of Oregon voters--considerably more than the 54 percent who supported the medical marijuana initiative--rejected an attempt to reclassify pot possession as a misdemeanor and thereby make users subject to arrest, jail, and property forfeiture.
Yet the consternation that medical marijuana activists are causing among prohibitionists suggests they're onto something. Aside from making life easier for thousands of patients--no small matter in itself--medical marijuana initiatives challenge a central myth of the war on drugs, expressed in one of the Clinton administration's favorite mantras: "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy, and wrong."
What does it mean for a plant to be "wrong"? It means that no good can possibly come of it. To admit that anyone could smoke pot and be better off as a result would be to admit that the federal government has been lying to the American people about marijuana--the most popular illegal intoxicant and the main target of the war on drugs--for more than 60 years.
It's hard to imagine a politician with the courage to do that, but perhaps there's hope in Minnesota. "It seems to me that God put everything here for a reason," Jesse Ventura told High Times magazine before his improbable victory. "I don't think the reason cannabis is here is so we can destroy it."