GLAA defends medical marijuana

TESTIMONY ON BILL 12-12
"THE DISTRIBUTION OF MARIJUANA AMENDMENT ACT OF 1997"

Delivered before the Committee on the Judiciary

MAY 7, 1997

Good morning, Chairman Evans and Councilmember Mason. My name is Rick Rosendall. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country; we recently celebrated our 26th anniversary with a reception at the Sumner School, and we were delighted that you, Mr. Chairman, and a number of your colleagues were able to attend. With me this morning is Craig Howell, a former GLAA President and our current Secretary. We are pleased to be with you today.

Since our founding in 1971, GLAA has rigorously held to a policy of focusing on issues of direct concern to lesbians and gay men. Up until this year we had not taken a position on the question of whether the possession and distribution of marijuana should be totally prohibited, totally permitted, or legalized and regulated under certain conditions. But the recent advocacy efforts of a number of People With AIDS and AIDS service providers, as well as the enormous growth in public awareness that has accompanied last year's successful initiatives in California and Arizona, encouraged us to take a fresh look at the possible legalization of marijuana for medical use in certain limited circumstances.

After immersing ourselves in the discussions and debates that have exploded into public consciousness since last November, we took the position that marijuana should be made legally available for the alleviation of symptoms accompanying a variety of diseases — including AIDS and breast cancer, both of which are more prevalent in our community than in the general community — when (a) marijuana has been shown to offer some prospects of alleviation and (b) other, more conventional treatments have been tried but have not been effective for those patients.

While others testifying today are no doubt far more qualified than we are to discuss the medical evidence in detail, let me just say that we have been impressed by the consistency of findings done in many circumstances over a considerable number of years that indicate a positive therapeutic role for marijuana — in research often hampered by the federal government's overt hostility and resistance. At the same time, we have been scandalized by the refusal of many politicians and leaders of the "war on drugs" to look at the abundant evidence already on record with anything like an open mind.

We must note that morphine (a highly addictive drug, far more so than has ever been alleged about marijuana) is already permitted for medical purposes in a variety of conditions — and no one pretends that this limited and highly regulated use "sends the wrong message to our youth" about dangerous drugs. Simple human compassion requires the adoption of a similar policy with regard to the medical use of marijuana.

In this light, we are more than a little concerned about Bill 12-12, which would heighten the penalties for the possession and distribution of marijuana. The bill's timing appears highly suspicious and overly politicized, because it seems to stem directly from the Clinton Administration's rather perverse efforts to resist the flow of public opinion towards allowing the medical use of marijuana. The Justice Department's heavy-handed threats to throw the book at any doctors daring to discuss the possible medical uses of marijuana with patients who might benefit from it are quite properly being challenged in court on First Amendment grounds and stand little chance of survival. The U.S. Attorney Office's insistence on Bill 12-12 obviously reflects the same mindset obsessing the inner sanctum of the Justice Department. That is reason enough to oppose Bill 12-12 in its present form.

The President's chief "drug warrior," General McCaffrey, dismissed the successful medical marijuana initiatives by associating them with "Cheech and Chong." I am sure that he intended that as an insult, but I must say as a civil libertarian that I would much sooner trust my civil liberties to Cheech Marin than to Barry McCaffrey.

In fact, if Bill 12-12 passes in its present form, GLAA may support a referendum campaign to let the voters decide the fate of this legislation. We would hope that the voters would find little use for this bill's authorization of a stepped-up campaign against PWAs and others who might benefit from the proper medical use of marijuana.

The only way to salvage this bill is for the Council to carve out an exception for the medical use of marijuana from the enhanced penalties envisioned in Bill 12-12. Even that would not entirely do the trick; the Council would have to go back and rewrite the already existing drug laws to remove all penalties for the properly regulated medical use of marijuana. Since Bill 12-12 has no legitimate purpose other than to symbolize the Clinton Administration's posturing, we would suggest that the Council reject the current bill and then introduce its own legislation to legalize the medical use of marijuana under controlled circumstances. Crafting such a piece of remedial legislation would require some attention and effort and considerable input both from medical experts and the general public; we suggest you start this process as quickly as possible.

Do not presume any such legislation would be overturned in Congress. The tide of public opinion is decidedly in favor of medical marijuana, and even the most die-hard opponents of drug legalization in the Administration and in Congress may soon realize they will have to give way on this limited front if they expect to maintain any sort of credibility for the rest of their efforts.

We believe that the Council must ultimately play a central role in enacting any law legalizing the medical use of marijuana. As you know, there is an initiative being proposed that would do this job; but any public vote on that would have to be a straight up-or-down vote, without the opportunity for fine-tuning. And even if a medical marijuana initiative passes, the Council still has power to overturn it, to weaken it — or to improve it. We at GLAA will continue to lobby our Councilmembers to put simple compassion and sound science before politics as usual.

Thank you.

I would like to add some comments in response to earlier testimony. In answer to a very useful question from Mrs. Mason, Ramsey Johnson of the U.S. Attorney's Office stated that the evidence of increased violence associated with marijuana trafficking is "anecdotal." We agree with the concern expressed by others that anecdotal evidence is not a sound basis for making public policy. It wasn't wise in the case of AIDS policy, and neither is it in the case of drug policy. Mr. Evans, you yourself gave us an anecdote about the baby that was killed on Delaware Avenue. We are as concerned about violent crime as anybody. But if the drug categories were created with the degree of addictiveness in mind, then it makes no sense to move marijuana from a Schedule 5 Controlled Substance to a Schedule 3 Controlled Substance in response to violence. I would reiterate Chris Warnock's point that there are already plenty of laws on the books for dealing with violent criminals.

But I too have an anecdote. I was wondering earlier why Chris Warnock looked so familiar, and then I remembered that several years ago I served on a jury in a drug trial in which Mr. Warnock was the defense attorney. That case was eventually thrown out because a cop had planted cocaine in a car driven by a teenager. If we are going to tell anecdotes, we need to look at that human dimension of this problem, too — where an overzealous cop nearly ruins the life of a young student in his eagerness to make an arrest at any cost.

And if we are so concerned about violent criminals, then why don't we put more cops on the street in these open-air drug markets instead of having them accompany DCRA (Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs) officials on raids of gay bars? There are violent crimes going on, yet somehow the police find the resources to help DCRA harass gay businesses, looking to make sure that the soap dishes are properly filled and extension cords are not being improperly used — while the DCRA doesn't even have enough resources to conduct the requisite number of restaurant health inspections. So we agree with Chris Warnock and others that our government's priorities are seriously out of whack.

It isn't enough to identify a problem or a concern. You have a responsibility as legislators to make sure that the solutions you propose actually have a chance of improving the situation. Mr. Johnson acknowledged that drug-related violence only decreases when turf wars are resolved. And it makes no sense to increase drug penalties in response to violence which only occurs because marijuana has been forced onto the black market in the first place!

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to testify.

[At this point Craig Howell stated his amazement at the earlier statement by Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Ramsey Johnson that the U.S. Attorney had no position that he knew of on medical marijuana. Craig pointed out the Aministration's fierce and belligerent opposition to the medical use of marijuana, which had been well publicized.]

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