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COLUMN

High Anxiety

Andrew C. Thomas

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the park. Boston Common played host to a rally on Saturday afternoon to promote the decriminalization of marijuana, an issue that is quietly making headway across the continent. And you could smell it from a mile away.

But the point was made. It was as clear as the sky.

I happened upon the rally, hosted by MassCann/NORML, dedicated to the promotion of marijuana use by responsible citizens, by chance. Among those who spoke was Ed Rosenthal, poster man for the battle between the feds and the marijuana legalization establishment. He made headlines when his medical marijuana operation was caught in a turf war between Oakland city officials, who had permitted him to grow medical marijuana for distribution, and the federal government who arrested him and shut down his operation under the supremacy of federal regulations.

How far has the group’s cause advanced in recent times? For the best local case, look up north. The province of Ontario currently has no personal possession laws on the books, thanks to a legal technicality involving -- you guessed it -- medical marijuana. As a result, police are instructed not to make arrests for amounts of less than 30 grams, which gave the recent massive Rolling Stones concert for Toronto a certain mellow atmosphere. There’s no such legal vacuum here, as many found out yesterday after they were arrested for possession at Saturday’s rally.

But despite the here and now, we are seeing progress at the highest levels in this country. One presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, has come out strongly in favor of medical marijuana. As his campaign stand at the rally would suggest, he’s cornered that market. Howard Dean of Vermont derailed a medical marijuana bill in his homestate and Sen. Lieberman of Connecticut has taken action to condemn any recognition of medical marijuana at the federal level.

But in true political fashion, none of the opposing candidates have made the issue worthy of the front page in their runs for the presidential bid, letting figureheads like Rosenthal stand on their own. Whether Kucinich should stand tall on this ground is shaky, but it seems clear that he should take a stance. It would seem that he holds sway over a powerful voting lobby for being the first to side with this cause.

As much as I hate to validate the work of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, led by head-in-the-clouds John Walters, his office publishes some relevant statistical information about drug use. It’s the conclusions the office draws I object to. The 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggests that 14.6 million Americans over the age of 12 use marijuana habitually. At best, Kucinich will have a commanding lobby of voters who would support him on this issue alone, enough to make him a significant candidate if the pot lobby maintains its strength. I’ll estimate that what we lose for those who are under 18 is roughly equivalent to what we gain for those who use it occasionally, not considered in the survey.

But at this point, a victory by Kucinich is a slim possibility. He clearly holds a strong bargaining position with other candidates from the pro-pot vote. And that alone might give the issue the proper debate it deserves.

Debate over this issue was stifled the minute Walters was nominated for the position by President Bush. His approach of targeting and arresting drug users, rather than dealers, comes directly from the Bush party line. Treating drug use as a criminal issue when it begs to be addressed from a health point of view is terribly unfair to the debate.

Besides, there should be little expectation that a good heaping helping of guilt might work against the use of a drug whose addictive power is far less than that of legal drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, or even caffeine. It isn’t going to fix the institution of marriage, already under threat of collapse without considering its expansion to homosexual relationships.

At the very least, we should not deny those in pain the ability to ease their suffering. While the debate over recreational use is still ongoing, the word is in for medical marijuana. Carefully conducted, sanctioned experiments are completely justified and should be expanded to the large scale. Those to whom current medicinal marijuana plans are aimed may have short lives ahead of them, but fully deserve to undertake this pursuit of happiness.