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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2002 / 20 Tishrei, 5763

Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom
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Consumer Reports

The feds don't feel their pain | Her mornings are never that good anyhow, since she wakes up with a leg that is withered from polio. Still, this particular morning was truly bad. She opened her eyes and saw five federal agents pointing rifles at her head.

"Get your hands up!" one of them yelled.

"Get out of bed!" yelled another.

She told them she was sorry, but she couldn't, she was crippled. They put her in handcuffs and again told her to "get up!" Again, she said she couldn't, because she used leg braces and crutches, and she needed her hands for those.

"Eventually," Suzanne Pfeil says, "they went after the others. They left me lying there, handcuffed in the bed, for an hour."

This was in Santa Cruz, Calif., earlier this month, at a hospice/co-op facility where 80 percent of the people are terminally ill. Does it sound like a place that federal agents need to burst into and raid, like something out of "Silence of the Lambs"?

This is our war on drugs.

Pfeil's "offense," and that of the others in her hospice, is that they use and grow marijuana for medical purposes. This is perfectly legal in Santa Cruz, and it is perfectly legal in the state of California. But under federal law, marijuana is still considered a controlled substance.

So you have dying patients who are pitied by their city and state, and outlawed by their country.

Maybe that's why they call it dope.

Now, let me say this. I don't smoke marijuana. I never have. I was one of those "square" kids in high school who caused my cooler friends to occasionally lower their voices or disappear to the bathroom for 15 minutes.

So I have no personal agenda - except one. Compassion. Patients sick enough to need marijuana deserve such compassion. They are trying to relieve their pain. To ease their nausea. They are trying to win a few precious minutes from cancer or AIDS or epilepsy or arthritis. Would you not want that for your ailing mother? For your terminally ill child?

Yet there is a notion among critics that these patients are locking the doors and throwing a Cheech and Chong party, mocking the government's naivety.

Nothing could be dumber - or further from the truth. I have spent a lot of time with sick people whose only relief is what marijuana gives them. Believe me, they would gladly trade their disease for your sobriety. Any day. Any minute.

"I have post-polio syndrome," Pfiel says. "It involves an incredible amount of muscle and nerve pain. I'm allergic to most pharmaceutical drugs. The marijuana relieves my pain and helps me cope.

"For most us, that's the situation. We're not getting high. We're trying to feel better. Isn't that what medicine is supposed to be about?"

The mayor of Santa Cruz was appalled at the federal agents who busted the co-op. So was the California attorney general. But the Drug Enforcement Administration clung stubbornly to its credo. "(Our) responsibility is to enforce our controlled-substances laws," said Asa Hutchinson, the DEA administrator, "and one of those is marijuana."

So despite the state's blessing, and the obvious non-threat of this small, compassionate place, here came the feds, guns held high.

And you thought it was the stoners who couldn't think clearly.

Look. This is hypocrisy. Last week at a football game, a father got his 14-year-old son so drunk on beer that the kid had to have his stomach pumped. But we sell beer openly. I know of people who sneak cigarettes to lung cancer patients. Nobody stops them.

But for some reason, when the sick and dying seek relief through marijuana, they are "dopers," "potheads" or, even worse, criminals.

"It's strange to me that our government does not want to see people who are suffering take care of themselves and do better," Pfiel says.

Right. Mornings, when you're sick and dying, are tough enough. You don't need guns pointed at your head.

Comment on JWR contributor Mitch Albom's column by clicking here. You may purchase his runaway bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, by clicking here.


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