Pubdate: Sat, 31 Oct 1998 Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Copyright: 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. Contact: Website: Author: Joseph A. Slobodzian, Inquirer Staff Writer


He Suggested Settling A Suit Over A Program By Expanding It.

Officials Are Reviewing The Idea.

In a move that surprised both sides, a judge has asked government lawyers to consider settling a class-action lawsuit by implementing a federal program supplying marijuana to anyone "whose medical conditions could be improved by it."

The suggestion by U.S. District Judge Marvin Katz was made last week in a conference with Justice Department lawyers and Lawrence Elliott Hirsch, a Center City attorney who in July filed the lawsuit on behalf of 165 individuals who the suit says would benefit medically from smoking marijuana.

But perhaps as surprising as the settlement proposal suggested by Katz, a former law partner of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) and who was appointed to the federal bench in 1983 by President Reagan, was the response of government lawyers.

After first balking at the suggestion, calling it too expensive to implement and monitor, a Justice Department lawyer on Wednesday asked Katz for 60 more days for federal officials to consider the settlement proposal.

Department lawyer Gail F. Levine referred questions to the department's public information office.

"I think we simply asked for the time necessary to respond to the judge's proposal," said Justice Department spokesman Gregory King. "I don't think that this should be taken as any indication, in any way, that we are reconsidering our position [ on medical marijuana ] .

King said the government had al ready filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit and would continue pressing that motion.

While remaining skeptical that the government might change its mind about legalizing the medical use of marijuana, Hirsch said he was surprised and pleased by Katz's tack during the conference. "I think this was the first time that I know about where any judge in the federal system has taken such a rational and compassionate approach," Hirsch added.

Hirsch said that during the Oct. 21 conference, Katz suggested that to settle the case, the government should revive and expand its "compassionate use" program, in which seriously ill individuals were supplied marijuana grown on a government farm in Mississippi. Some medical researchers have said that the use of marijuana seems to help treat the eye disease glaucoma and helps combat the nausea that often accompanies the treatment of cancer and AIDS.

Although a synthetic form of a key compound in marijuana has been marketed as the prescription drug Marinol, marijuana advocates contend that it is not as effective as smoking the herb itself.

In the late 1970s, in response to a federal lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began supplying up to 300 marijuana cigarettes monthly to people found to have serious medical conditions that benefited from marijuana use. Hirsch said the program expanded to 14 people before the government closed it to new participants in 1992; eight people continue to receive marijuana under the program.

According to court documents, Katz's proposed settlement would involve the government establishing a "carefully monitored, scientifically controlled program" to distribute marijuana to people selected for medical reasons. Those individuals would then become the base population providing "useful scientific research results that would help decide whether marijuana was medically beneficial or not." The lawsuit comes two years after California voters approved a ballot question legalizing medical use of marijuana, and when researchers are again examining the medical potential of the herb, which proponents prefer to call by its Latin name, cannabis.

At the same time, officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in December asked HHS scientists to study whether marijuana and its chemical components should be removed from DEA's Schedule I list of most dangerous drugs.