A bipartisan trio of U.S. senators, New Jersey's Cory Booker, New York's Kirsten Gillibrand and Kentucky's Rand Paul, are sponsoring a bill to classify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, meaning the federal government would allow it be used as medicine.
Some critics worry that such a bill could become a "gateway law" to full legalization of recreational weed; defenders say sick patients need the pain relief best provided by marijuana.
Should the bill get approval? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
BEN BOYCHUK: Medical marijuana should be a serious matter of public policy. Our medical marijuana laws, however, are a joke.
In 1996, Californians passed the Compassionate Use Act, the first state medical marijuana law in the nation. Proponents sold the measure as a matter of offering relief to patients with terminal illnesses. The week before the November election that year, ads featuring a nurse describing her husband's struggle with cancer and her efforts to ease his suffering with cannabis blanketed the airwaves. "God forbid someone you love may need it," Anna Boyce said.
Such emotional appeals tugged heartstrings and moved voters - the ballot measure passed with a solid 55 percent of the vote. Although it took several years for state and local officials to construct a rough approximation of a regulatory scheme, California eventually came to lead the nation in moving public opinion to favor medicinal marijuana.
But what became clear very quickly was just how expansive the definition of "medical necessity" can be when it comes to cannabis.
Yes, marijuana really can help AIDS and cancer patients, as well as people with glaucoma. And depending on whom you ask, marijuana can help with every other ailment known to man, from depression and anxiety to chronic migraines and frigidity.
Marijuana is such a miraculous drug that it can even remedy maladies unknown until just recently. Comedian Seth Rogen joked on the Conan O'Brien show a few years ago that he got his prescription for a specific ailment: "It's called 'I ain't got no weed on me right now.'" Rogen Syndrome may be the fastest spreading disease in America today.
Legislators and policymakers should recognize medical marijuana for what it is, not what its supporters want to pretend it is. Path-breaking laws in California, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii and 19 other states and the District of Columbia have made it easier for gravely ill people to have some relief.
But those laws have also led to a kind of de facto legalization. It was a very small step for voters Colorado and Washington to embrace legalization without the patina of medical respectability.
Set aside the heart-wrenching appeals and genuflections to medical science. The debate we should be having is about the costs and consequences of legalization simply.
JOEL MATHIS: Yes, it's true: Drugs used to treat pain or relieve the symptoms of disease can often be used for recreational purposes.
That's true of marijuana. It's also true of OxyContin, Valium and Ritalin - three of the most-abused drugs in America - yet no one is trying to ban them from sale, or to prohibit doctors from using their best judgment in prescribing them to patients who can benefit from them.
The difference between marijuana and those lab-created drugs? Marijuana is probably safer. You can't really overdose on it, after all.
"In absolute terms, states with a medical marijuana law had about 1,700 fewer opioid painkiller overdose deaths overall in 2010 alone than would be expected based on trends before the laws were passed," Colleen L. Barry, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, testified last year. "While medical marijuana laws have been controversial, our study indicates an important unintended benefit of state medical marijuana laws." Is medical marijuana a gateway to full weed legalization? Not necessarily. We've lived a long time in this country with the understanding - however imperfectly executed - that the availability of prescription drugs doesn't imply society's approval for their recreational use. We could probably come to the same understanding with pot.
Would the advent of medical marijuana be abused by a few Seth Rogen types? Undoubtedly. And yet: So what? The existence of Seth Rogen has managed to annoy a North Korean dictator, but society itself doesn't seem much the worse for having him around and contributing, does it? What does medical marijuana get us? Probable pain relief for those who need it. Reduced deaths for those who might rely on pills to get by. And, it seems, a few more "Reefer Madness" fantasies from folks who fear the results of compassion. How sad.
And how antiquated. Twenty-three states have already passed medical marijuana laws. The issue has the backing of both Republicans and Democrats, who agree on little else these days. Prohibition usually hurts more than it helps. Let's get this new bill passed, and quickly.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.