OEDEL: Blurry pot laws

February 2, 2014 

Respected Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, made a noticeable impact in Georgia’s legislative session by switching his tune on medical marijuana. Last Tuesday, Peake unexpectedly joined more than 85 House members in co-filing a legalization bill in Georgia’s General Assembly known as Haleigh’s Hope Act, which is House Bill 855.

Why would Peake switch? He was touched in part by Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl from Forsyth. Haleigh is severely afflicted by drug-resistant seizures and related maladies. Her parents hope medical marijuana can give her welcome relief. There’s some reason to think it might.

Aside from relying on Haleigh’s parents’ and a few similar parents’ anecdotal, heart-rending stories of desperation, Peake also defended his decision by referring to a survey he did on his website in which he openly quizzed about whether medical marijuana should be legalized. More than 2,000 responded, and 95 percent, according to Peake, advocated legalization.

Were the responders mostly advocates for kids afflicted with seizure disorders or maybe just a random sampling? Neither, it appears. Peake admits that 73 percent of his responders supported full recreational use. Random surveys of advocates for seizure sufferers, or of Peake’s typical constituents, probably would not find 73 percent in favor of unlimited recreational pot use.

The public seems to think that we already have enough slackers and layabouts without opening more pipelines to Pota­ritaville. Peake’s survey appears to have been an unexpected opportunity for recreational pot smokers to blow smoke in and around the Gold Dome.

Peake is adamant that the bill will draw the line against recreational use and restrict use to pill form, but the drums are already beating for broader legalization. As respected as he is, Peake may find it hard to maintain those lines.

Mercer professor and doctor Richard L. Elliott immediately used the occasion publicly to “ask whether it is time simply to legalize marijuana (and) recognize that, compared with alcohol, it is less addictive and carries fewer medical risks.” Sooner or later, that argument is going to get pushed hard.

Assertions like Elliott’s that are based on dubious science stick in my craw. As long as we’re allowing anecdotal evidence into the debate, here’s my contribution.

My eldest son, Spencer, died from a meth overdose. His gateway drug at about 14 was marijuana. Sure, there were many other factors. But one or two “responsible” authorities in his life pooh-poohed his marijuana use. Emboldened, Spencer went on to cocaine. Then he had a cocaine overdose that nearly killed him. After more than a year in residential drug rehab, meth finished him off.

So much for any deference in my household to the fatal deceit that marijuana is harmless. You can well imagine that my first instinct about House Bill 855 was to oppose it instinctively out of a sense of obligation to other Spencers.

My additional research into the question suggests, though, that there could be usefulness in studying marijuana’s complex properties more carefully, and giving some distillates of it to people like Haleigh, or maybe even the entire 200-or-so ingredients in some circumstances to some people.

Unfortunately, the science on this drug is surprisingly undeveloped. One important reason is that the federal government has it classified as a Class I drug with no medical benefits. If you’re a medical researcher casting about for your next project, there’s little reason to pick for study a substance that’s federally taboo.

President Obama isn’t enforcing that law, but the law remains unchanged, leaving legal ambiguity and a scientific black hole. It’s another instance of Obama’s unconstitutional, unilateral disrespect for Congress, and pot-friendly states’ disrespect for federal law. Both approaches are unhealthy.

One practical suggestion is for Congress to reduce marijuana from Class I to Class II status to enable research into marijuana’s potential usefulness. States could then cautiously, but lawfully, experiment until we know more.

Does Georgia need House Bill 855? Haleigh’s family appears perfectly capable of taking Haleigh to one of 20 states that permit medical marijuana use.

Modest interstate travel is manageable for most families. Logical extensions of House Bill 855 may not be survivable for others.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University law school.

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