A Conservative Case for Medical Cannabis

The following op-ed was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune.

In 1915 — 100 years ago — the Utah Legislature passed an omnibus narcotics bill that banned a lengthy list of substances including cocaine, heroin, novocaine, morphine, as well as “loco weed,” the common term in that era for cannabis. At the same time, the law legalized possession, use, or sales of these substances “upon the written order or prescription of a physician.”

Even at the dawn of drug prohibition in the Beehive State, it was recognized that the medicinal value of these substances merited their legal use under a doctor’s supervision. While this recognition changed over time as it relates to cannabis, Utah now has an opportunity to reverse course and once again allow suffering patients to access the significant medical benefits of this plant.

Sen. Mark Madsen is one of the state’s most conservative legislators, and is sponsoring Senate Bill 259 to create a medical cannabis program in Utah. In doing so, he’s appealing to fellow conservatives on the need for compassionate care and the freedom to choose.

From a proper role of government argument, conservative legislators are increasingly recognizing that the state should not be forcing itself between a doctor and patient. If both believe that a certain medication is needed — be it cannabis or an opiate (which is far more toxic and likely to create chemical dependency, yet has long been legal) — then why should the government force itself into the middle and deny somebody a medicine that may save their life?

Of course, it’s easy to recognize the clear benefits of medical cannabis, but some conservatives still worry about expanding legal access, arguing that doing so would lead to abuse by adolescents or others looking to “get high.” This concern was recently expressed by Gov. Gary Herbert, who called medical cannabis programs “a sham,” saying that under such a system cannabis is “not just being used for medical uses, it’s being used for recreational purposes.”

Conservatives emphatically reject this faulty logic when the “dangerous” object is not a drug, but a gun. In 2012, 330 Utahns died as a result of a firearm. Millions of dollars in hospital charges that year were racked up by people injured by these weapons. Despite the tragic toll directly attributable to the proliferation of guns throughout Utah, there remains a strong culture of respect for the ownership and carrying of these tools that can allow people to preserve their lives and protect their property. A small, criminal element of society does not persuade the Legislature to crack down on law-abiding gun owners.

Utahns largely recognize that the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental, and shall not be infringed by the government — even if some use that right to violate the rights, and lives, of another. The question is, do people have the right to obtain and use medicine to preserve or improve their lives? True conservatism would answer in the affirmative.

We also know that prohibiting guns won’t take them out of the hands of criminals, while law-abiding citizens will disarm themselves, to their own detriment. The same holds true with cannabis — its prohibition has simply pushed it into the black market, where those who do not respect the law are still able to obtain it. At the same time, those with legitimate medical needs are suffering and dying needlessly as they comply with this unfair legislative mandate. The speculative fear regarding the misuse of cannabis is no justification to deny doctors and their patients a life-saving remedy.

This year’s legislative session is also addressing the question of whether terminal patients should have the right to try non-FDA approved medications, and the proposal is sailing through Capitol Hill with ease. But we shouldn’t make sick people wait until death’s door before the government steps to the side, allowing them access to something that may alleviate their pain or prolong their final days.

Conservatism demands leaving people alone to pursue their own happiness, limiting the government to protecting rights — not putting conditions on them. Cannabis is needed for the same reason that opiates and other risky substances have long been available: to be used in appropriate circumstances for comfort, treatment and even the cure of life-threatening medical conditions.