Medical marijuana users should be patients — in Kentucky, they’re criminals

Mar 26, 2019 at 4:26 pm

I am a civil rights lawyer who lost an important case last week. Losses are an inevitability in my line of work; you learn to take your lumps. But this one is different.

Had this suit been successful, it would have allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients who need it in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Had we won, Kentucky would have become the 34th state in the union to allow medical marijuana in some form. Had the courts agreed with my clients, they would have been free to choose a course of treatment that is recognized by a growing number of experts worldwide.   

Amy Stalker was prescribed cannabis in two different states by two different medical professionals before she moved back to her home state to take care of her sick mom. In two other places in our country, she was a patient; here, she’s a criminal.

Dan Seum is a Kentucky senator’s son and a former high school football coach who developed an opioid addiction after he was overprescribed pain pills — pills that are perfectly legal despite the undeniable fact that they kill lots of people. Cannabis, which has never caused an overdose death, treats his pain effectively; he doesn’t take the pills anymore.

Danny Belcher is a Vietnam veteran whose combat-related PTSD is temporarily soothed by cannabis.

These are my clients. They don’t fit any stereotype of marijuana users. They’re not the characters from “Half Baked” or “Pineapple Express.” They’re not just looking to get high. They are people who have found a natural medicine that works — one that their doctors say they should be using.

Why should anyone who doesn’t use cannabis care about this case? At first, I was skeptical about cannabis as a bona fide treatment. My clients taught me better. Thankfully, I haven’t yet had to deal with chronic pain or any of the other long-term illnesses for which cannabis has proved a valuable treatment. Most folks who medicate — especially in states like Kentucky and Indiana, where copping to this brand of medicine can get you locked up — don’t talk much about it.

My clients use medicinal cannabis because they need it. And they’re brave enough to risk discussing it openly. You should care about them, and the hundreds of thousands of people like them nationwide.

Even if you don’t care about them, there are bigger issues at play here. As yet, no court in Kentucky has ruled on the constitutionality of laws restricting the private, medicinal use of cannabis. The two courts to have ruled on our case so far have basically said that it’s an issue for the legislature. That sounds nice. In the abstract, if a decision can be arrived at using a fair — or at least sane — democratic process, it’s better for social order, good feels with your neighbors, universal harmony, and all that.

To accomplish that, you have to have a sufficient number of elected representatives who actually care about the problems of real people, not just moneyed special-interest groups. Kentucky is noticeably lacking in such representation. You’d think this one would be a political no-brainer; medical cannabis is overwhelmingly favored by voters of all political persuasions.

My clients and many others have testified repeatedly before the General Assembly about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating a whole host of ailments, to no avail. Evidence is presented, sick people are put on display, doctors plead for their patients, tears are shed. They don’t care. 

But even a legislature less callous and ineffective than Kentucky’s doesn’t have much business deciding the contours of individual rights — that’s what the courts are for. And the legislature certainly has no business regulating a patient’s relationship with their doctors, which is exactly what restrictions on medical cannabis do.

We brought this case because we think that the Kentucky Constitution’s strong privacy protections apply to people who want to grow and consume plants that have proven medicinal benefits. So far, no court has said whether or not we’re right.

Last week’s loss hurts, but it doesn’t mean defeat in the long run. We intend to ask the Kentucky Supreme Court to review our case. Regardless of whether they agree to hear it, or what the ultimate outcome is in any court, I am confident that my clients will win this fight.

Americans are finally realizing that the 80-plus years of anti-marijuana propaganda they’ve been fed was, and is, a lie. Cannabis is safer than a lot of things that are perfectly legal to put in your body. It works as a medicine, and legislators should not be telling doctors otherwise. Most states now allow medical cannabis, a trend that is sure to continue. I hope that Kentucky will not be the last state to come around.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. He recently launched “Midwesticism,” a short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: