Higher Ground: Free the weed!

Oct 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Despite the fact that medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia and is legal recreationally in Colorado and Washington state, the stigma of marijuana use sticks to patients and users like the tar and feathers of bygone days.

It sticks despite the fact that medical patients clearly benefit from it. It sticks despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, and support for recreational marijuana is nearing 60 percent in recent polls.

The best way to wash off that stigma once and for all is for the federal government to legalize it. Or as they say at many a rally, free the weed.

The current hodgepodge of laws springing up across the nation cause confusion, uneven application, and create legal problems for folks who believe they're protected by state laws. Take the example of Colorado's Brandon Coats. He's a paraplegic who uses medical marijuana to ease his muscle spasms. In 2010, while Colorado's medical marijuana law was in effect, he was fired by Dish Network after a drug test came back positive — even though his former employer agreed that Coats was never impaired at work.

Last year, a Colorado appeals court upheld the firing, ruling that "an activity that violates federal law but complies with state law cannot be 'lawful' under the ordinary meaning of that term."

We've seen plenty of that kind of maneuvering in Michigan. In 2012, Joseph Casias, a Battle Creek man with brain cancer, was fired from his job at Wal-Mart after testing positive for marijuana use. He was a manager who had been honored as "Associate of the Year" by the store in 2008, and he never medicated at work. Yet he was fired for his off-the-job use, and the courts upheld that decision.

And then there's the case of Bree Green, the child who was taken away from her parents for six weeks by the state Department of Human Services. Her parents are both registered patients: her father uses medical marijuana to treat his epilepsy, and her mother for symptoms of multiple sclerosis. It was obviously the stigma of marijuana use that led to that travesty of justice.

Medical marijuana has been used as a whip against people in custody cases, welfare rights, landlord-tenant disputes, and personal privacy issues, even though the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act clearly states that registered patients "shall not be subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including but not limited to civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau, for the medical use of marijuana."

Again and again, county prosecutors have brought charges against people who, in many cases with local permits, believed that they were operating within the law. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who campaigned against the MMMA, has interpreted the law as narrowly as possible and in defiance of an electorate that clearly supports medical marijuana. He's spoken out against decriminalization efforts and common-sense laws being considered by the legislature.

Schuette's attitude and actions represent the apex of the stigma against marijuana in Michigan, but there is plenty more across the nation.

In Minnesota, Angela Brown faces gross misdemeanor child-endangerment charges for giving her son cannabis oil to treat inflammation, headaches, muscle spasms, and seizures. Three years ago, he suffered a traumatic brain injury from getting hit in the head with a baseball. The pain led the teenager to hit and cut himself. That went away after taking the oil his mom bought in Colorado and brought back to Minnesota.

Minnesota has a medical marijuana law that does not go into effect until 2015. It's fairly restrictive, but will probably allow Brown to treat her son with cannabis oil. Brown clearly jumped the gun, but the situation is just silly. Brown told her son's teachers the truth after they noticed that he'd been feeling better. Their reaction was all too typical.

"Just the looks on some of the teachers' faces was like I just said I was shooting up my son with heroin," Brown wrote in a public statement. "A week later, I had the cop knocking on my door and they wanted me to hand over the oil. They made it sound like if I didn't, I was going to get arrested."

Minnesota authorities have threatened to take her son away. At the same time, numerous marijuana refugees are moving to states where their children can get the medicine they need.

The paradox is being played out all over. Patients are allowed marijuana, but their employers can fire them for it. Parents can medicate, but could lose their children for it.

The same disconnect prevails at the federal level. The Obama administration says it's not going to concern itself with state-legal medical marijuana facilities; yet regional federal prosecutors are busting them. The DEA schedule says that marijuana has no medical use, yet the federal government holds a patent for the medical use of cannabinoids found in marijuana.

How about this one: Vanita Gupta, President Obama's nominee to head the civil rights office of the Department of Justice, has called for those who seek a fairer justice system to "recalibrate drug policies, starting with decriminalization of marijuana possession." That's not federal policy; there's a disconnect here.

The federal government needs to stand up, reschedule marijuana, and make it legal, period. This will create an even playing field across the nation, stop confusing people and employers, and begin to lift the stigma that has dogged so many of our citizens. It will also end the injustice — and costs — of arresting some 750,000 each year for nonviolent possession.

But maybe the biggest effect of legalizing marijuana would be to remove the stigma from medical research that would benefit millions of people.

One bit of research comes from the October edition of The American Surgeon. A study from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute found that brain trauma patients with marijuana in their systems were more likely to survive initial treatment.

Even in light of this work, David Plurad, co-author of the report, found it necessary to say that if marijuana were decriminalized, it would be easier for researchers studying the plant. For one thing, potential funders point to the DEA schedule that says it has no accepted medical use in refusing support. And then there are hoops to jump through to get government permission.

There is no scientific basis for marijuana prohibition, and the stigma laid on marijuana keeps us from changing law regarding it. Politicians fear changing the law because they fear a backlash from conservative voters. They wring their hands and proclaim "we don't know enough about marijuana."

In the meantime, people are experimenting on themselves and their family members because doctors don't know anything about marijuana therapies and fear social backlash. At the same time, someone wants to throw a Minnesota mother in jail for giving her son an effective treatment for his suffering.

We need evidence-based policies, and we need to get out front in creating effective therapies for people who are suffering.

Lift the stigma; free the weed!