Punishing the sick wastes money

Much that the U.S. government does makes no sense. Jailing the sick and dying for using marijuana is one of the most senseless.

The United States faces manifold challenges which consume much manpower and money: the Iraq war, terrorism, illicit immigration, transnational crime. Uncle Sam should clear the decks, so to speak. It is time to conduct policy triage, dropping government tasks that offer little benefit.

But officials in Washington prefer to maintain their power.

A few House members recently proposed an amendment to the Justice Department appropriation bill, barring federal officials from using any funds to prevent states “from implementing state laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana in those states.”

The measure didn’t legalize drugs. All it did was say that Uncle Sam wouldn’t interfere with states that allowed sick people to smoke marijuana. The bill failed, even though Congress is controlled by a political party claiming to believe in limited government, individual liberty and federalism.

A dozen states, including California, have lifted restrictions on patients suffering from such diseases as AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis and using marijuana for relief from nausea and pain. Yet Uncle Sam continues totoss these people in jail.

Much ink has been spilled on the value of pot as medication, with the Food and Drug Administration recently weighing on the negative side. But The Economist magazine noted that “another reason the FDA statement is odd is that it seems to lack common sense. Cannabis has been used as a medicinal plant for millennia.”

Large majorities of American and British oncologists have said they would recommend use of pot if it were legal.

Health Canada, the Canadian medical system, has approved the medical use of marijuana.

The American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs reported that “anecdotal, survey, and clinical data” demonstrate marijuana’s medical efficacy. Numerous health and patient organizations, such as the Lymphoma Foundation of America, back access to or at least research on medicinal marijuana.

But forget the debate over pot’s value as medicine (or the broader assault on individual liberty). America is, or at least is supposed to be, a federal system. Thus, the efficacy debate should be left to states.

If they decide to allow limited medical use, Washington should respect that decision. (Increased medicinal consumption has had no impact on overall marijuana use.) In fact, candidate George W. Bush urged respect for federalism on this subject: “I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.”

There’s another important issue today, however: good stewardship of limited resources.

Assume that recreational drug users should go do jail. The government still has to choose which drugs and trafficking operations to target. Washington can’t hope to interdict everything flooding in, and arresting cancer patients who smoke pot is a huge waste of time.

But the resource waste becomes particularly grotesque when compared to the federal government’s other priorities.

Washington faces a particularly daunting task in attempting to secure the nation against terrorism, as the recent airport scare illustrates.

In a world of limited resources, notes Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute: “Congress should direct homeland security funding to programs that provide the greatest return in the most crucial security missions. Since the number of possible attacks is effectively unlimited and the resources we can devote to the fight against terror are limited, spending should not occur without a careful cost-benefit analysis.”

Even more so, the government should stop devoting resources to other peripheral tasks, which reduce the personnel and cash available to respond to terrorism and other basic tasks. The resources devoted to cracking down on medical pot may be relatively small, but they exemplify a loss of perspective in Washington. The federal government can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all.

It’s time for Uncle Sam to set priorities, and hunting down AIDS patients who smoke marijuana shouldn’t be one of them.

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