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MEDICAL REEFER MADNESS

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By JOHN P. WALTERS and WILLIAM J. BENNETT
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Unfortunately, not only is marijuana not medicine, its use is especially contraindicated for many of the people who will be encouraged to use it by California's new law. Cancer patients' immune systems are weakened by radiation and chemotherapy, leaving them susceptible to infection, and marijuana use further compromises their immune systems. That's in addition to the drug's well-known harmful effects on brain cells, lungs, and circulation.


Yet, despite the evidence, and after 24 years of trying and failing, the pro-pot side carried the day. The California initiative passed with 55 percent of the vote, capping a 24-year effort by NORML and other groups to gain public sanction for widespread marijuana use on the basis of the drug's supposed "medicinal" qualities.


Why this sudden success? The difference is that in 1996 the potheads had access to that mother's milk of politics -- money. Campaign finance laws place a $ 2,000 ceiling on individual contributions in national races, but the ballot initiative process has no such limitations. Foremost among the financiers and businessmen whose backing secured passage of Prop. 215 was George Soros.


Based in London and New York, Soros is a currency trader and investor with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $ 2.5 billion. He is also sugardaddy to the drug legalization movement, committing, by his own reckoning, more than $ 15 million to various groups since 1991, including $ 980,000 to the California initiative and the similar initiative that passed this month in Arizona. Groups funded by Soros contributed at least another $ 300,000, and Soros solicited at least one contribution of $ 200,000. In all, the organization that flacked Prop. 215, Californians for Medical Rights, raised $ 2 million for the campaign, including $ 750,000 in the first 19 days of October alone. In contrast, the opposition, Citizens for a Drug-Free California, spent a total of $ 26,000 and aired no paid TV commercials.


Soros and company are pursuing a stealth strategy designed to conceal their real agenda: legalizing all drugs. In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the president of Soros's Open Society Institute, Aryeh Neier, explained that Soros gave the pro-legalization Drug Policy Foundation a "set of suggestions to follow if they wanted his assistance: Come up with an approach that emphasizes 'treatment and humanitarian endeavors,' [and] . . . target a few winnable issues, like medical marijuana and the repeal of mandatory minimum [sentences]."


Soros was joined in the recent campaign by Arizona businessman John G. Sperling, who gave $ 630,000 to the California and Arizona initiatives. Sperling is adamant that doctors should be allowed to prescribe all drugs, including heroin and LSD: "I don't think that there should be any substance outside the pharmacopeia." Sperling is less clear on exactly why. When asked for studies that show the utility of these drugs, he cited anecdotal evidence: "You go from anecdote to anecdote to anecdote, and there are so many people who say their lives have been changed for the better." Of course, nobody denies that marijuana's euphoric qualities would cause individuals to feel good (as would a few shots of Wild Turkey). The question for science is whether marijuana treats disease, not whether it makes people feel giddy.


Sperling disagrees. "The drug problem," he says, is "a public health problem, primarily. It only becomes a crime when you put people in prison for it." People who deny this are "either intellectually dishonest, stupid, or both, and that goes for most members of Congress, the president, and the man who wanted to be president."


Sperling is not alone. Former U.S. senator Dennis DeConcini served as the Arizona campaign's unofficial poster child, appearing in commercials and on TV news opposite drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey. Like others we interviewed, DeConcini was unable to cite a single scientific study showing marijuana's medical effectiveness. Not that this bothers him: "To me it's irrelevant whether you have a study or not," he says, so long as the law has "compassion" and requires a doctor's prescription (as it does in Arizona, but not in California).


Passage of the two initiatives notwithstanding, use of marijuana for nonmedicinal purposes remains a crime in California and Arizona. Unfortunately, as the DEA anticipated, the change in state law has weakened local law enforcement, and federal agents cannot be expected to take up the slack. There are 7,000 state and local narcotics officers in California, more than ten times the number of DEA agents in the state. And the federal agents concentrate on large traffickers, not users.