Tuesday, May 15, 2001

High court weighs in
on laws governing
medical marijuana

The issue: A U.S. Supreme Court
ruling may affect how well Hawaii's law
authorizing medical marijuana use works.

MARIJUANA'S use for medical purposes will not end abruptly because of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that a federal ban supersedes laws in Hawaii and eight other states. However, it could drive the distribution of cannabis underground, at least temporarily melding its dissemination for illicit and for worthwhile uses. Congress should correct the situation by allowing states to retain authorization of marijuana's distribution for use in treatment of certain ailments.

State laws allowing the use of marijuana for such treatments are not merely a clever way to legalize pot. Marijuana's classification as a schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act carries an administrative assertion that it has "no currently accepted medical use." Medical research has shown otherwise. Where allowed, physicians have prescribed it to alleviate pain and suffering from numerous illnesses, including AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and migraine.

Hawaii's statute allowing medical use of marijuana was enacted by last year's Legislature and signed into law by Governor Cayetano. Eighty patients have registered to use marijuana since the program began operating on Dec. 28. Ted Sakai, the state public safety director, says the registry will continue to be open. The source and distribution route of these patients' marijuana could be another matter.

The high court's ruling addresses the narrow area of organized manufacturing and distribution of marijuana. It does not prohibit physicians from prescribing it, and they can be expected to continue obtaining it and administering it to patients in privacy. Nor does it forbid patients from using it for medical treatment. However, the process will be more cumbersome. Many patients may prefer to find easier, if illegal, sources.

The ruling has nothing to do with whether marijuana is effective in treating illness, but rather whether federal rules prevail over state laws covering distribution of marijuana. Robert Raich, the lawyer for the Oakland, Calif., marijuana cooperative targeted in the Supreme Court ruling, said there are "many other issues ripe for review" in lower courts, including the issue of states rights, that may end up in the Supreme Court.

Congress should put an end to further litigation by authorizing an exception in the Controlled Substances Act to allow medical use of marijuana in states that have such laws. The issue of whether to allow cannabis to be used for medical purposes is the wrong battlefield for the federal government to fight the war on drugs.

Sick leave rate seems
high at state hospital

The issue: Employees at the Hawaii
State Hospital average 16 days a year
on sick leave, raising a question of abuse.

If problems at the Hawaii State Hospital are to be solved, controlling potential and actual abuses of sick leave should be a focal point. A report by a monitor appointed to oversee compliance with a consent degree between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice showed that last year, hospital employees took an average of 16 sick days off per year, a rate four to five times higher than the national average for health-care organizations. Of a staff of 458, one third took 20 or more days of sick leave in 2000, according to the monitor, Leland Chang.

This leads to increased overtime costs to keep the hospital fully staffed, Chang said. In addition, the amount of leave taken stymies hospital managers in scheduling. The Hawaii Government Employees Union, which represents hospital workers, filed a grievance last month complaining of unsafe conditions and inadequate staffing at the facility.

The union may have a valid concern about safety because the majority of the hospital's population is made up of forensic patients assigned by the court system. A recent rash of escapes shows that security at the facility isn't up to par. As Chang suggests, the hospital should tightened up on security so that staff members don't fear for their safety.

That said, staff members, the union and state officials should better manage the sick leave policy that provides each worker 21 days of leave immediately upon being hired. Jane Ryan, of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association who is assisting Chang with his study, says she knows of no other state psychiatric facility that grants that much sick leave to new employees.

If workers are genuinely ill, they should be granted sick leave; no one is denying them that benefit. However, the high rate raises questions about abuses. If left uncontrolled, the situation could fuel a damaging cycle of staff shortages leading to more job stress, which results in more illnesses and more shortages.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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