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    A Times Editorial

    A vindictive drug war


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 16, 2003

    Ed Rosenthal, the author of numerous books on marijuana, is being used as a scapegoat in Attorney General John Ashcroft's latest attack on the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. On Jan. 31, Rosenthal was convicted on three federal counts of cultivation and conspiracy, charges that carry a minimum five-year sentence. He had been raising marijuana plants to distribute to sick people in the San Francisco Bay area whose doctors recommended the drug as a way to ease their pain and other symptoms.

    His activities were in strict conformance with California's medicinal marijuana law known as Proposition 215. But Ashcroft refuses to respect the decision of nine states to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. And to demonstrate his belief that no sick person -- not even the terminally ill -- should have access to the drug, Ashcroft hauled Rosenthal before a federal court as if he were just another drug pusher.

    It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible and vindictive use of federal power.

    For all Ashcroft's promotion of "states' rights" when he was a senator from Missouri, he now seems to have little respect for any sovereign but himself. As attorney general, he has used various tactics to close access to medical marijuana in the states where it is legal. He has threatened to strip prescription-writing privileges from doctors who recommend the drug, and he has authorized harsh predawn raids of cannabis clubs.

    Ashcroft justifies these tactics in the name of the war on drugs. But it really is a war on people with cancer, AIDS and glaucoma. Marijuana has been shown to provide relief to people suffering from these and other conditions. Federal law allows physicians to prescribe morphine and OxyContin, but not marijuana, a drug that is far less harmful.

    Because U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer ruled that Rosenthal's defense could not bring up the fact that he was growing the plants as medicine, Rosenthal was portrayed by the prosecution as a major drug dealer. In fact, he had been raising marijuana in a warehouse under the auspices of the city of Oakland, which had given him official status as a medical marijuana provider. He was convicted because the jury never learned the full story. Since then, five jurors have come forward to express deep regret for the outcome. They said during a press conference that they never would have convicted Rosenthal had they known he was raising the crop as medicine.

    Sentencing in the case is set for June. In the meantime, Rosenthal is out on $200,000 bail. His attorneys promise to pursue every appeal option. But if Rosenthal does end up spending years behind bars, then, as Charles Dickens wrote, "The law is a ass."

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