On May 14, 2001, a 31-year-old federal law – the Controlled Substances Act – trumped California's state laws allowing for the supply of medical marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the federal government and against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative.
The news was cheered by characters who had long extolled the virtue of minimizing federal interference in the affairs of the 50 states. But since these rather less-than-compassionate conservatives have consistently seemed happy to defer to Uncle Sam on certain issues – especially on personal and medical matters – perhaps it would it be more appropriate to call these squirrelly states-rights advocates "situational conservatives."
It seems many who are still opposed to medical marijuana only see another battle line in their perpetual cultural warfare against anything they connect to the "permissiveness" of the '60s. Rather than noting the heartbreaking need of a cancer patient, these partisans are only concerned with what message recognizing the legitimacy of medical marijuana could send. They see it as a slippery slope toward legalization.
Of course, the news from the highest court was not applauded in all circles. The unlucky folks who were more likely to be denied access to relief from their chemotherapy-related nausea probably weren't cheering the Supreme Court's so-called wisdom.
More than 20 years ago, I witnessed a scene that comes into my mind every time this topic comes up. The unusual transaction took place in an old friend's carriage house art studio.
As planned, I showed up at about 5:15 p.m. to give my teammate a ride to a softball game scheduled to start at 6 p.m. As it turned out, we had to wait for his brother to stop by to score some pot.
Although he was a regular consumer, my friend was not ordinarily a dealer in such commodities. On top of that, the artist's older brother was a buttoned-down lawyer who had never smoked pot in his life. So, on the face of it, the situation seemed odd.
The artist explained that his brother had asked him to buy the pot for a senior partner at his law firm. The partner wanted it for a client of his who had an advanced form of cancer. Apparently the patient, a retired judge, had been told by his doctor that smoking marijuana might help. The doctor indicated he wasn't in a position to help with actually obtaining the contraband. As the story went, the judge asked his friend and personal attorney for some discreet help with the matter.
Moments later, the blue-suited lawyer arrived. As he accepted the parcel – a brown paper bag containing a plastic bag filled with two ounces of primo weed – the lawyer laughed nervously and said toward me, "I suppose he told you what's going on?"
Indicating I was aware of the circumstances, I asked about something that had just occurred to me: Would this old judge know what to do with the stuff in order to smoke it? Did he know to remove the seeds and stems? Did he have a pipe, or know how to roll a joint?
The lawyer was stumped. But he admitted it was likely the judge would not know how to handle it. He chuckled and said this particular man was about as old-fashioned and straight-laced as they come.
"Good point," said the artist, pulling out a tablet of drawing paper.
Then he started to create a set of written instructions, with simple pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate each step. As the guide was put together – it made us late for the softball game – the three of us polished off half a six pack of cold beer and talked about the bizarre situation.
Finishing his mission of mercy, the artist had a few words for his always-cautious brother. In essence, my friend said – "Here's this old judge, who would have been happy to throw any of us in jail yesterday for possession of this same bag. Now the judge is in a jam. His doctor can't help him. Neither can his preacher. No, in his darkest hour of need, the judge has to turn to the only Good Samaritan available, an unrepentant hippie willing to break the law out of kindness for a stranger in need."
Then my friend threw a pack of rolling papers into the bag, so the novice pot-smoker would have what he needed to get started.
Since the Controlled Substances Act does not allow for an exception for "medical necessity," the Supreme Court basically threw up its hands and said it could find no way to protect California's suppliers of medical marijuana from federal prosecution.
Hey, if the patient says it helps and his doctor says it helps, why isn't that good enough? For humanitarian reasons, the argument of whether to allow for obtaining marijuana for doctor-authorized treatment simply must be separated from strategies for, or against, legalizing marijuana across the board.
Congress needs to sweep away the cobwebs and take a hard look at amending its Controlled Substances Act. Much has been learned about these matters since 1970. Naïve as it might sound, I'd still like to believe there's a difference between being conservative and being cruel.