State Representatives Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, have introduced a bill that would legalize medical marijuana in the state of Wisconsin. If the bill is puff puff passed, patients with glaucoma, cancer, AIDS or other chronic conditions will be eligible for marijuana prescriptions. They would receive ID cards registered with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and have access to dispensaries. Patients could grow up to 12 plants and be in possession of up to three ounces of cannabis. I’m no doctor, but that is a large quantity of pot. Pocan held a press conference on Wednesday in which he introduced the “Jackie Rickert Medical Marijuana Act,” as the bill is called, in honor of medical marijuana activist Jackie Rickert. Pocan’s stance on drug laws is progressive, and he has proposed a number of similar bills since 2001 – none of which have passed. According to Pocan, “… making medical marijuana legal is the right and compassionate thing to do for patients in pain.” During last week’s press conference, he added, “This is an issue where people are clearly way ahead of the policy makers.” 

Evidence shows that Pocan is right on both accounts. Innumerable patient testimonies show that medical marijuana is an effective pain medication for a variety of illnesses, and it has been used with some success to treat mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Erin Silbaugh, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who uses marijuana to treat his PTSD, claimed that “Cannabis has never caused me or anybody else harm, only peace and harmony.” Officials at the Wisconsin Medical Society note that smoking marijuana is itself a health hazard, which calls into question the net benefit of its use as a prescription drug. However, the Medical Society recognizes numerous therapeutic effects of marijuana, and supports further studies of its effects on patients. These studies are currently prohibited because cannabis is a listed as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency. 

It is worth mentioning that alternative pain medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opiate derivatives are potentially addicting and are commonly abused as recreational drugs. When compared with powerful narcotics such as these, marijuana is a sensible alternative. A substantial majority of Americans are in favor of medical marijuana, according to a CBS News poll, which found that “… more than three in four [Americans] think that doctors should be allowed to prescribe small amounts of marijuana for patients suffering from serious illnesses.” Sixteen states and the District of Colombia have legalized prescription use of the drug. 

Pocan correctly frames the issue of legalizing prescription medical marijuana as one of compassion and democracy. Debate over the outright legalization of pot as a recreational drug is sharply divided between those who think marijuana has a degenerative effect on society and those who consider it harmless. These issues are completely irrelevant with regards to legalizing marijuana as a prescription drug, something fundamentally different from a recreational substance. 

The issue at hand is whether or not marijuana can be proven effective as a therapeutic drug, and if so, whether patients should be allowed to have access to it. Patient testimony and physician opinion show that cannabis is indeed an effective treatment for a variety of symptoms, and popular opinion is in favor of legalizing its medicinal use. Passing the Jackie Rickert Medical Marijuana Act would show compassion for patients suffering from painful illnesses such as glaucoma, cancer, and HIV/AIDS, and demonstrate respect for popular opinion. Unfortunately, there is little to no chance that this year’s Republican-controlled legislature will pass the bill. Patients such as Erin Silbaugh whose quality of life is greatly improved by the good herb will still be forced to obtain the drug illicitly. All the same, it is refreshing to see politicians like Pocan and Erpenbach proposing levelheaded and forward-thinking legislation that reframes debate over marijuana policy in terms of compassion for patients and democracy. 

Charles Godfrey (cwgodfrey@wisc.edu) is a sophomore majoring in math and physics.