Commentary

Forbes Is Wrong On Medical Marijuana

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

A year after he seemed to be an irrelevant footnote to Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential candidacy, Steve Forbes is being touted as a serious contender for 2000. But some of his old supporters worry that he may want the presidency too badly.

There is, in fact, nothing as ugly as a politician trying to remake his image. Viewed as a moderate in 1996, Forbes was shunned by Christian conservatives. So instead of promoting the flat tax, the undeclared candidate is now campaigning against, of all things, medicinal marijuana.

Patients and doctors alike attest to the therapeutic value of marijuana, but good people can still disagree about the wisdom of allowing its use. Not in Forbes’ view, however. Proponents of relaxing this small facet of the drug war are, well, evil.

In taking out ads to criticize a prospective Washington, D.C., initiative to allow the medical use of marijuana, Forbes contends that “radical drug-legalization forces…want to increase drug use.” He has also written an open letter to the president and congressional leaders urging them to oppose the measure. In his words, “well-financed legalization forces” want to “make America safe for Colombian-style drug cartels.”

Such demagoguery is particularly disappointing coming from someone who seemed to be a sober idea man. Obviously, Forbes has never met a patient who smoked marijuana for health reasons like Rick Brookhiser. An editor of the conservative magazine National Review, Brookhiser used pot to cope with chemotherapy during a bout with testicular cancer in 1992.

Washington state lawyer Ralph Seeley has fought cancer for a decade, losing a lung, part of his spine, and several nerves in his back in the process. He also turned to marijuana to relieve the nausea from succeeding rounds of chemotherapy.

These cases are not unique. Explained Barbara Jencks, who, before her death from AIDS, was arrested for using marijuana to combat AZT-induced nausea, “I’ve got to smoke marijuana. I’ve got to, or I’ll die.” Many other sick and dying people say essentially the same thing.


If he wants to help eliminate drug abuse, Forbes should offer alternatives, not rhetoric. Turning drug use, fundamentally a moral and spiritual problem, into a crime hasn’t ended drug abuse.


So do medical and scientific professionals. A recent National Institutes of Health panel concluded that smoking marijuana may help treat a number of conditions, including nausea and pain. The drug could also assist people who fail to respond to traditional remedies.

More than 70 percent of U.S. cancer specialists in one survey said they would prescribe marijuana if it was legal; nearly half said they had urged their patients to break the law to acquire the drug. The British Medical Association reports that nearly 70 percent of its members believe marijuana should be available for therapeutic use. Even President George Bush’s Office of Drug Control Policy criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for closing its special medical marijuana program.

One could still oppose the initiatives that passed in California and Arizona (ironically, one of the states that Forbes carried in 1996). But such measures are not intended to “increase drug use,” as he suggests. Supporters of medicinal marijuana simply proposed that the government distinguish between the seriously ill and those seeking a high. Today, morphine may be prescribed even though it is banned for recreational use. Marijuana could be treated the same way.

Moreover, it is prohibition, which Forbes endorses, that has fostered Colombian-style drug cartels They exist only because drugs are illegal. That is in fact, the principal lesson of Prohibition. Banning alcohol turned the business over to organized crime—American versions of Colombian-style drug cartels.

The crime surrounding drugs is also largely due to drug laws, not drug use. Killings and robberies inevitably accompany illegal markets. Dealers fight over turf, sellers and customers rob one another. This sort of crime was absent during the many years when marijuana,. and opium, were legal.

If he wants to help eliminate drug abuse, Forbes should offer alternatives, not rhetoric. Turning drug use, fundamentally a moral and spiritual problem, into a crime hasn’t ended drug abuse. More than 11 million marijuana arrests over the past three decades have not stopped more than 60 million Americans from using the drug. Contrary to charges that the Clinton administration is soft on drugs, the government has been busting more people than ever.

Marijuana arrests are up 50 percent over the Bush years. In fact, there were nearly 642,000 arrests in 1996 alone for marijuana, most for simple possession. The result? Adolescent marijuana use rose by one-third in 1995 over 1992. Current policy is not working, and doing more of the same won’t work any better.

The debate over drug policy is critically important, and Forbes should join in. But vilifying people who accurately diagnose the failures of the drug war is unbecoming a serious presidential candidate. Treating the sick and dying as the enemy is a particularly cheap way to win votes.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.