Blessing Marijuana For Mercy's Sake
Support for Permitting Medical Use Is Growing Among Major Religious Denominations
By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2004; Page B07
Several major religious denominations have joined a growing movement to legalize the medical use of marijuana, asserting an ethical responsibility to help ease the pain and other debilitating effects of such diseases as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.
The United Methodist Church, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ have made statements supporting the controlled use of marijuana for medical reasons.
"According to our tradition, a physician is obligated to heal the sick," begins a resolution adopted in November by the Union for Reform Judaism. The statement acknowledges the medical use of marijuana as a 5,000-year-old tradition and encourages the federal government to change marijuana's status from a prohibited substance to a prescription drug.
The denominations have called for a reassessment of penalties for marijuana users trying to increase their appetites during chemotherapy or alleviate chronic pain. "We believe that seriously ill people should not be subject to arrest and imprisonment for using medical marijuana with their doctors' approval," asserted a Coalition for Compassionate Access statement endorsed in 2002 by the United Church of Christ.
Some denominations assert strong support for medicinal marijuana but reject its recreational use -- thus supporting one goal of secular marijuana lobbying groups but not the ultimate goal of completely decriminalizing the drug.
"The medical use of any drug should not be seen as encouraging recreational use of the drug," reads a statement approved last month at the general conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh. "We urge all persons to abstain from the use of marijuana, unless it has been legally prescribed in a form appropriate for treating a medical condition."
One thing notable about religious support of medical marijuana has been the lack of intense debate, especially in denominations riven over the issues of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy, according to religious activists.
The Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of alcohol, tobacco and drug programming for the United Methodists' General Board of Church and Society, said delegates to last month's convention voted 877 to 19 in favor of an amendment to drug-use guidelines that supports the drug's medical use in states that allow it.
"The surprising thing, it was almost unanimous," she said of the vote.
Increased evidence of the drug's usefulness and personal anecdotes of lay members and clergy helped the amendment's passage, she said. During the 18 months her panel worked on the proposal, "we heard many stories, from conservatives and liberals, of family members, or people they knew or ministered to, who had used marijuana in the course of chronic illness."
The movement to legalize the medical use of marijuana faces significant opposition, however -- especially from the Justice Department, which enforces federal laws prohibiting the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"Marijuana is a dangerous drug, a surprisingly dangerous drug," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the drug policy office. More teenagers are treated for marijuana abuse than for abuse of any other substance, including alcohol, and any law making marijuana more accessible will exacerbate the problem, he said.
Proponents are trying to circumvent "a well-developed system for introducing new medicines," Riley said, adding that a pill form of marijuana's primary active ingredient has been available for years and that other cannabis-based medicines are in the works.
Since 1996, when a successful California referendum opened the door to medical marijuana use there, nine states have enacted laws that allow certain patients to use the drug despite federal prohibitions.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Supporters of the medical use of marijuana say it relieves pain and other symptoms of debilitating diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
(Andy Clark -- Reuters)
In a June 26 Religion article, Hawaii was omitted from a list of nine states that have enacted laws allowing qualified patients to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons.
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