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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

State's political priorities go to pot


By David Shapiro

In another example of the Legislature's inability to focus on the most pressing issues of the day, a new dispute has flared up between lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle over medical marijuana.

Legislators led by 'Ewa Beach Sen. Will Espero and Rep. Joe Bertram III of Maui are squawking about Lingle's refusal to convene a task force lawmakers authorized over her veto to study the obstacles patients encounter when trying to obtain pot for medical use.

Lingle, who has the power to manage state resources in the current budget shortfall, determined that the task force is of too little priority to be bothered with while core state programs are in crisis.

Bertram and Espero plan to form their own working group to study the matter, which only proves Lingle's point that a task force wasn't needed.

The medical value of marijuana is a matter of dispute among doctors, but some patients swear by it for relieving the symptoms of diseases including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, chronic pain, severe nausea and seizures.

Hawai'i law allows medical use of marijuana, but only if patients get a prescription from a doctor and grow it themselves. Some bills introduced by legislators in the past would have the government all but grow the reefer for them and roll their joints.

This is an issue affecting relatively few people who are capable of seeing to their own needs by either growing their pot or acquiring it on the market. Neither local nor federal authorities are prosecuting medical marijuana at this point.

I had no trouble getting it that way when friends persuaded me over the skepticism of my doctor that marijuana might alleviate the nausea from a treatment I was taking for my multiple sclerosis, and possibly help with the underlying disease.

My doctor turned out to be right. The pot did me no harm, but I found the buzz to be of zero medicinal value.

It's difficult to take marijuana seriously as a medical substance. It hasn't been rigorously studied like other drugs or vetted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

It's a weed that's pulled out of the ground and taken in uneven doses by a variety of decidedly nonmedical means, including smoking it and eating it in brownies. There's no control over the purity of the pot or the concentration of its THC, the active ingredient.

It's kind of like getting your penicillin by chewing mold. How much infection would that fend off?

That said, marijuana is a relatively benign substance, and people with debilitating diseases who find comfort in it should be allowed to use it if they wish.

But there's a difference between the government allowing its use and promoting its use, as Bertram and Espero seem to want. And there's a limit to the service patients can expect from government in terms of holding their roach clips for them.

Critics are suspicious that the push for medical marijuana is an attempt to get a foot in the door for full legalization of commercial production and sales.

If that's the issue, let's have the discussion up front instead of trying to sneak in the back door. It might even be a relevant topic in these times, with its potential to generate economic activity and tax revenue.

But on the narrow matter of medical marijuana, there's no way this fringe issue deserves to jump to the front of the line at a time of shrinking government services and far more compelling needs to attend to like the people threatened with losing life-saving chemo-therapy and dialysis.