NASHVILLE, TN -- Supporters of marijuana use for medical purposes are gaining ground nationwide, but a Southern Baptist ethicist said their agenda is based primarily an emotional argument that plays on people's compassion.
Medical marijuana is now legal in the District of Columbia after the Democrat-controlled Congress declined to overrule a D.C. Council bill that allows the city to approve as many as eight dispensaries where people can purchase the drug.
The council approved the bill in May, nearly 12 years after 69 percent of District voters approved a referendum on medical marijuana. The U.S. constitution gives Congress jurisdiction over the capital city, and each year since 1998 Congress had blocked the marijuana law, but this year the initiative proceeded undeterred after Congress had 30 legislative days to review it and declined to act.
"I am particularly concerned that our U.S. Congress failed to prevent the medical marijuana provision from going into effect in the District of Columbia," Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press.
"It is distressing that the liberal leadership in Congress would refuse to fulfill its duty toward the people of the District. Drug abuse is already rampant in D.C.," Duke said. "Congress' inaction will lead to a weakening in public sentiment toward drugs. More drug abuse is certain to follow in America's capital as a result."
With approval granted to the District of Columbia, it joins 14 states in allowing persons deemed chronically ill to use marijuana legally. D.C.'s law includes a unique provision requiring the drug to be provided at a discount to poor residents who qualify.
"No one should be too poor to buy pot if they live in Washington, at least if the marijuana is for a medical condition. That's the conclusion of a new medical marijuana law enacted in the nation's capital," the Associated Press reported Aug. 4.
David Catania, a D.C. councilman and the chairman of the city health committee that drafted the law, told AP, "We may, in fact, set an example for other states."
Residents who qualify are not expected to be able to purchase medical marijuana in the District until sometime next year as the mayor and the department of health must establish regulations on who can bid for a dispensary license.
Meanwhile, a campaign called "Just Say Now" plans to spend $500,000 to mobilize young people to vote this fall in the five states where legalization of marijuana will be on the ballot -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and South Dakota.
Janie Lorber wrote on The Caucus, a New York Times blog, that "weed could be the secret to high voter turnout this November."
"The theory is that young people are more likely to come to the polls if marijuana is on the ballot," Lorber wrote Aug. 5.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and in November voters will decide whether to make their state the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Other states will vote on whether to approve medical marijuana use or to expand what is already allowed. The Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, is behind many of the efforts to liberalize marijuana laws, providing major funding in Arizona and South Dakota particularly.
"This is about protecting our most vulnerable citizens from a really cruel and unnecessary law that forces them to live in fear when all they want to do is acquire medication that makes their life worth living," Andrew Myers, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project's Arizona campaign, told The Arizona Republic. "This is about protecting people who are seriously or terminally ill from being arrested just for following their doctor's advice."
Duke of the ERLC said such arguments go a long way in gaining votes for medical marijuana, but behind them is a dangerous reality.
"People do not want to see someone suffer from illness, so they are prepared to approve measures they are told will bring relief. Unfortunately, medical marijuana does not deserve that kind of response," Duke said.
Marijuana is a hallucinogenic and extremely debilitating, Duke said, and it can be addicting even while it is a poor pain reliever.
"People who use marijuana to help them deal with severe pain must also use other pain-relieving drugs because marijuana is not that effective in relieving severe pain," Duke said.
"The primary contribution medical marijuana will make to society is that it will decrease society's legitimate concern about the dangers of marijuana use and lead to greater acceptance of the drug," he said. "Medical marijuana causes people to drop their guard and sets them up for broader legalization efforts. That's why legalization of medical marijuana almost always precedes efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana."
In related news, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced in July that it will formally allow patients treated at its hospitals and clinics to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The new policy settles a conflict with federal law, which still prohibits marijuana use for any reason.
"When states start legalizing marijuana, we are put in a bit of a unique position because as a federal agency, we are beholden to federal law," Robert Jesse, the principal deputy under secretary for health in the veterans department, told The New York Times.
At the same time, Jesse said, "We didn't want patients who were legally using marijuana to be administratively denied access to pain management programs."
In a policy shift last fall, the Obama administration announced that the Justice Department would not prosecute people who use or distribute medical marijuana in states where it is legal.