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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2008

Rethinking medical marijuana

LEAVE it to trendsetter California to push the outer limits of the medical marijuana envelope. Literally.

A handful of businesses in Los Angeles have installed vending machines in their stores that dispense envelopes containing small amounts of pot to patrons with state-issued cards authorizing use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The development is sure to pit the Golden State against federal drug laws once again, but sooner or later, state and federal authorities will have to resolve this issue.

California is among 12 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. But under federal law, any kind of marijuana use is illegal and state laws that make exceptions to ease the suffering of a variety of medical conditions are not recognized

Two years ago, the controversy went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld drug laws that allow federal prosecution in these cases.

The ruling did not invalidate state laws but denied them cover of immunity from enforcement of federal drug bans. And the result has been a hardening of positions by states-rights advocates and the Bush Administration, which vows to wage an aggressive "war on drugs."

California's latest foray into this arena includes 24-hour vending machines that dispense as much as a quarter of an ounce of marijuana to patients with verified user cards and fingerprint identification. Owners of the computerized devices say they're convenient, while offering lower prices, safety, and anonymity.

Still, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies say the inventions may need unplugging if a determination is made that federal law is being violated. In the past two years the DEA has shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in the state and leveled felony distribution charges against owners.

But, as we have argued before, arresting legitimate providers of medical marijuana or harassing patients for using the substance in compliance with state law is unfair, just as the war on drugs is fragmented, expensive, and often fruitless.

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