WASHINGTON -- There are two areas of concern Congress needs to deal with immediately -- marijuana as a medical tool and pharmacists who place their religious beliefs above their licensed duty.
While these issues don't seem as pressing in the scheme of things as democratizing Iraq or solving the long-range problems of Social Security, resolving them quickly might just send a signal that now and then common sense does prevail in government, a badly needed sign in these days of prolonged squabbling over legislative procedure.
The Supreme Court decision that those who grow marijuana for their own medical purposes can't escape federal prosecution even if their state laws say otherwise is an insult to compassion and sensibility. In its 6-3 vote, the court made no distinction between a homegrown relief for pain and suffering and a truckload of commercial pot on its way to a rock 'n' roll concert. Not even a doctor's prescription can change that, the majority of the good justices decided.
Well, that seems reasonable. After all, it is only a short step between easing the pain of glaucoma or helping forestall an epileptic seizure or relieving the pressure of a brain tumor with a daily toke and becoming an interstate dealer in reefer madness.
Because those few windowsill plants have the potential of multiplying so rapidly they require as much attention by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a shipload from the latest Tijuana cartel. At least, that's the basis of the court's decision.
Having never indulged in recreational use of "funny tobacco" or any other of the things people shove up their noses or stick in their arms, I have little firsthand knowledge of the problem and stand to be corrected if I am wrong. But it doesn't seem to me that there is any difference between a prescription for the use of marijuana for pain than one for a far more potent drug handed to me recently as result of a kidney stone. I can guarantee that I could have gotten a heck of a lot more on the street for that stuff than I could have for a couple of ounces of "Mary Jane."
The court suggested Congress could fix this, taking it out of the category of states' rights vs. federal government. The lawmakers should do so immediately. In fact, they should find a way to legitimize the controlled growing of small quantities of marijuana for medical purposes just as it has for the manufacture of other substances even more subject to misuse. This is not in any way meant to support the legalization of marijuana generally. Its lasting impact on young minds and bodies is still too uncertain for that. And although it is nearly impossible to control because it is so easily accessible, it should not be legitimately available for any purpose other than medical.
Birth control prescriptions
Equally as pressing and far simpler to resolve is the problem of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for items like birth-control pills or the morning-after drug that offend their religious sensibilities. Some even have been known to lecture the turned-away customer with evangelical fervor about the evils of what they are doing. Fortunately, some states have taken action to remind these druggists that they have a licensed responsibility to fill a legitimate prescription. There are bills in both houses of Congress already that would make this mandatory under federal law.
What a terrible mess if pharmacists had the right to refuse to honor a doctor's orders because they didn't agree philosophically or metaphysically. Those who receive the state's blessings to dispense drugs have an absolute obligation to do so without questioning the reasons unless they suspect that the prescription was illegally obtained or there is a pattern of abuse by the doctor. Certainly putting one's religious beliefs ahead of that duty is outrageous and those who feel otherwise should let their licenses expire and get out of the business.
Being an anti-abortion-rights druggist doesn't give one the right to deny service to those who disagree or to serve only those who do. There are items like cigarettes that require no specific expertise to dispense and that can be legitimately excluded from a drugstore's inventory. Drugs approved by the FDA can't be. If they are, the store is not a legitimate pharmacy and should not be advertised as one. This is pretty simple.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.