By Bob Roehr – Contributing Writer

Gay Congressman Barney Frank is a leader on both measures aimed at giving physicians, patients more leeway in use of drug to manage pain

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, right, says he believes it is "poor law enforcement" to criminalize the medical use of marijuana.

Two bills introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives on April 17 would put a serious dent into federal prosecution of medical use of marijuana and offer protection to patients who use it.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is a leader on both measures.

People with HIV often use marijuana to stimulate appetite, reduce nausea and relieves pain.

The Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act would reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The change would allow physicians to recommend use of marijuana under conditions set by state law.

An Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults would eliminate federal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana of up to 100 grams and for not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of up to one ounce or 28.3 grams. It would create a civil penalty of $100 for the public use of marijuana.

It would not legalize growing or distribution of commercial quantities of marijuana, nor would it affect any state laws.

"When doctors recommend the use of marijuana for their patients and states are willing to permit it, I think it’s wrong for the federal government to subject either the doctors or the patients to criminal prosecution," Frank said in introducing the measures.

"Literally, to make a ‘federal case’ out of it is wholly disproportionate to the activity involved," Frank continued. "We do not have federal criminal prohibitions against drinking alcoholic beverages, and there are generally no criminal penalties for the use of tobacco at the state and federal levels for adults. There is no rational argument for treating marijuana so differently from these other substances."

Frank said he thinks it is "poor law enforcement" to keep laws on the books that criminalize "something which in fact society does not seriously wish to prosecute."

"In my view, having federal law enforcement agents engaged in the prosecution of people who are personally using marijuana is a waste of scarce resources better used for serious crimes," he said.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said no decriminalization bill has been introduced in 37 years.

"If passed by Congress, this legislation would legalize the possession, use, and non-profit transfer of marijuana by adults for the first time since 1937," Stroup said.

The bill incorporates the basic recommendations of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse that was issued in 1972 during the Nixon administration.

Aaron Houston with the Marijuana Policy Project said Frank’s bill "represents a major step toward sanity in federal marijuana policy."

"The decades-long federal war on marijuana protects no one and in fact has ruined countless lives," Houston said. "Most Americans do not believe that simple possession of a small amount of marijuana should be a criminal matter, and it’s time Congress listened to the voters."

The lead sponsor of the medical marijuana bill is Texas Republican Congressman Rep. Ron Paul. The bipartisan group of initial co-sponsors includes Democrats Sam Farr of California and Maurice Hinchey of New York, and Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California.

The group had supported similar legislation in earlier sessions of Congress but no hearings were ever held on those bills.

Caren Woodson, speaking for Americans for Safe Access, said, "By disregarding marijuana’s medical efficacy and undermining efforts to implement state laws, the federal government is willfully placing hundreds of thousands of sick Americans in harms way."

Americans for Safe Access is a national organization that advocates for medical marijuana.

A study published online in the "Journal of Pain" on April 17 offered further evidence of the utility of marijuana in reducing pain. The study was conducted at the University of California Davis and included patients experiencing neuropathic pain from diabetes, spinal injury and multiple sclerosis who smoked marijuana cigarettes containing controlled amounts of the active ingredient THC.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2008.

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