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State finds its compassion Proposal to legalize medical marijuana acknowledges the facts of suffering

It has taken a long time, a lot of work, a lot of unnecessary suffering and a lot of good people spending a lot of time in jail for some of the powers that be in the United States to finally understand that the term "medical marijuana" is not an oxymoron.

With a sudden change of heart -- or, perhaps more accurately, a slow change of heart suddenly made public -- it appears that Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer is ready to help New York join the growing list of states where compassion for the sick and the dying will be more important than the calcified habits of prohibitionist drug warriors.

If a bill can be drawn to the governor's satisfaction, limiting the availability of medical marijuana to those with a demonstrated therapeutic need and avoiding any federal entanglements, there may yet be time in the current session of the New York Legislature for a medical marijuana bill to pass and be signed. That is exactly what should happen.

Spitzer has been big enough to admit that when he was a prosecutor, he thought as a prosecutor, and took the knee-jerk stand of a great many federal and state attorneys that any drug that has been classified as dangerous by federal law must be without redeeming value. Now that he has become a governor, with a much broader portfolio of issues to address, he hopes the people who elected him will accept a pending change of heart as evolution, not flip-flopping.

Accepted.

Spitzer has seen the evidence that marijuana can provide blessed relief from ailments as varied as cancer pain, cancer-treatment side effects, glaucoma-induced blindness and the crippling loss of appetite experienced by some AIDS sufferers. The feds, meanwhile, have clung to outdated and, frankly, cruel standards that prohibit the use of marijuana by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

Any state action to the contrary must stay under the feds' radar, and the way to do that apparently is to cast legitimate patients adrift to grow the stuff themselves or find some kind soul who will provide it for free. Sale and cultivation, even by nonprofit medical or support organizations, would have to remain illegal.

The experience of a dozen states that have passed medical marijuana laws -- Connecticut may soon join them -- has put the lie to the idea, still dominant within the Bush administration, that such compassionate acts would lead droves of previously law-abiding citizens suddenly astray. People are smarter than that. And more compassionate.

Soon, with some quick action by the Legislature and the governor, New York will be, too.

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