Incarceration is the only well-proven health hazard associated with cannabis use. American jails are now overflowing with an estimated 1.7 million inmates, the largest per capita prison population in the world. Wore than 60% of those prisoners are drug offenders, many with little or no previous criminal history. Murderers and rapist frequently serve a fraction of their sentences and are free to commit more violent crimes, while nonviolent drug offenders are punished with harsh mandatory-minimum sentences. Marijuana users are subject to an average of one arrest every 49 seconds in the United States. In 1996, there were more than 650,000 Americans arrested on marijuana charges.[1]  In 1997, that figure was over 700,000. In 1998, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.[2] The number of marijuana felons in prison in 1999 was approximately 70,000.[3] In 2008, marijuana arrests in the US total more than 20 million. Patients suffering from severe and terminal illnesses use medicinal cannabis at the risk of intrusion into their lives and life-threatening imprisonment by social service and law enforcement agencies following the directives of “federal foolishness.”[4]

While a handful of legislators, such as Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), have sponsored several bills that would have modified existing federal statures to exempt medical patients from prosecution, these attempts have all been defeated. In 1999, Frank introduced HR 912, which would take the matter out of the hands of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Unmoved by scientific evidence and popular opinion, Drug Czar McCaffrey and policy makers at the Drug Enforcement Administration may eventually be denied their jurisdiction by Congressional Acts legalizing the use of marijuana as medicine.[5]

Until such a time as marijuana is legally defined in accordance with established medical science, federal law enforcement tactics will remain the most critical threat to the health and well-being of medical marijuana users. Studies on this issue underline the inequities of America’s Drug War.[6], [7] Anecdotal evidence us both poignant and compelling, such as the horror story of a wife dying of cancer while her husband is imprisoned for growing her medicine.[8]  Although rescheduling marijuana for medical use was a forbidden topic in the 1999 report,[9] the Institute of Medicine’s Marijuana and Medicine reached conclusions that clearly supported rewriting the marijuana laws enacted by Richard Nixon in 1970. Yet, regardless of the wealth of medical evidence, including the 1999 IOM recommendations, the federal government continues to enforce and escalate the war on medical marijuana,[10] forcing the closure of locally approved medical marijuana dispensaries serving tens of thousands of severely ill patients,[11], [12] and then prosecuting individual patients for exercising the rights granted under state law. Despite California’s Compassionate Use Act and similar medical marijuana laws in other states, patients and advocates continue to suffer life-threatening incarceration by federal law enforcement agencies.[13], [14]

The advent of statewide medical marijuana laws actually intensified government persecution in many conservative regions. In Los Angeles, where new medical marijuana law was hotly denounced, the founder of a medical marijuana center, former police officer Martin Chavez, whose severe spinal injury qualifies him under California’s Compassionate Use Act, was denied his legal right to a medical necessity defense and sentenced to six years in prison for helping sick people cope with their suffering.[15] A partner in the LA medical marijuana club, David Herrick, was sentenced to four years in prison for delivering small amounts of medicine to physician-approved patients.

In another graphic example of legal persecution, former gubernatorial candidate Steve Kubby and his wife Michelle found picturesque Placer County in Northern California rabidly inhospitable to advocates of medical marijuana. A six-month investigation of the high-profile Libertarians resulted in the decimation of their home, even though a medical specialist confirmed that marijuana was probably responsible for Steve Kubby’s continued survival of cancer. Adamantly defending their medical qualifications under the law, the Kubbys were nonetheless charged with multiple felonies carrying a combined sentence of more than ten years in prison and more than ten thousand dollars in fines. [16]

The intent of such unjust treatment is obvious. In the words of famed linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, “The history of the ‘war on drugs,’ and more specifically the well documented history of marijuana legislation, makes it clear that the goals of the repeatedly declared ‘wars’ have little to do with the availability and use of harmful substances, and a lot to do with what is called ‘population control.’”[17]

While medical marijuana advocates hailed the 1999 Institute of Medicine report as vindication of their cause, and while conservatives denounced it as “a thinly veiled effort to promote legalization of the drug,” [18] the million-dollar review of officially acceptable scientific studies apparently had no effect on federal policies. The US Drug Czar’s office reaffirmed enforcement of laws against medical marijuana patients soon after the IOM report definitively supported rescheduling marijuana as medicine. The American Psychiatric Association newsletter, Psychiatric News, was sharply critical in its April 16th 1999 issue, reporting, “The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) endorses the continuing arrest of medicinal marijuana users.”[19] On September 13th, 1999, however, the denounced federal policy was dealt a serious blow by the federal judicial system. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government “has yet to identify any interest it may have in blocking the distribution of marijuana to those with medical needs.” In the landmark 3-0 ruling, the court also said that the government “has offered no evidence to rebut the evidence that cannabis is the only effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill individuals.”[20], [21]

[1] NORML:

[2] “FBI reports marijuana arrests exceed those for violent crime.” NORML News, October 21, 1999

[3] “New research published by Federation of American Scientists finds marijuana offenders crowding nation’s prisons and jails.” Marijuana Policy Project, June 16, 1999

[4] Kasirer, “Federal foolishness and marijuana.” New England Journal of Medicine, January 30, 1997

[5] Armentano, “Barry Frank Submits New Med-MJ Proposal.” High Times, No. 287, July 1999

[6] The Lindesmith Center, 888 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10106,

 [7] Drug Policy Foundation, 4455 Connecticut Avenue NW, #B-500, Washington, DC 20008,

[8] Johnston, “It’s not the cancer that’s killing her.” November Coalition discussion list, Spring, 1998. Source:

[9] Wishnia, “The IOM Medical-Marijuana Report.” High Times, July 1999

[10] Egelco, “Federal judge orders closure of six Northern California pot clubs.” Associated Press, May 14, 1998

[11] Guara, “Legal hassles extinguish pot clubs.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 1998

[12] Minton, “US agents raid Peron’s pot farm.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1998, Also: San Francisco Examiner, May 1998

[13] “Judge says jailed medical marijuana advocate must receive medication.” Associated Press, August 1, 1998

[14] Krassner, “Medical Pot Ban Threatens Peter McWilliams’ Life.” High Times, July 1999

[15] Gerhard, “Sense and Sinsemilla.” POZ Magazine, June 1999

[16] California NORML Reports, Vol. 23, March 1999, Source:

[17] “Noam Chomsky on Renee Boje.” Hemp-talk, September 6, 1999, Source:

[18] “National drug war leaders disregard science in medical marijuana debate.” Marijuana Policy Project Press Release, April 20, 1999

[19] Campbell III, ed. Psychiatry News (Newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association), April 16, 1999, Source:

[20] Quinn, “Court boosts medical marijuana clubs.” Reuters, September 13, 1999

[21] “Judge told to rethink marijuana ban.” Associated Press, September 14, 1999