Thursday, August 25, 2016

Provisional Ethics At Work: New Colo. Law Mandates Marijuana Administration For Specifc Cases in Schools

Jack Splitt, 15, of Wheat Ridge High School, center, meets his mother Stacey Linn, left, and registered nurse Lisa Krecklow after his first day of the school year. Jack, who has cerebral palsy, is allowed to wear a skin patch to school, which delivers a cannabis-derived treatment. Jack's Law, House Bill 1373, permits parents or another designated caregiver to administer a non-smokable cannabis treatment on school grounds to a student who is a registered medical marijuana patient.
Jack Splitt accompanied by his mom and caretaker at Wheatridge HS

At the cusp of the ethical and legal interface we find 15 year old Jack Splitt, wracked with painful muscle contractions and spasms that only marijuana can ease. In one person, Jack Splitt embodies the total refutation of the D.E.A.'s claim that MJ has "no medical value" and merits being placed in the same Schedule 1 class as heroin and crack cocaine.

But don't try to run that codswallop past Jack's mom, Linn,  who battled for two years to let Jack take his nonsmokable cannabis treatments while at school. Jack, now at Wheat Ridge High School, has cerebral palsy accompanied by painful, debilitating muscle contractions.

Linn won her fight this summer when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed “Jack’s Law”  on June 6th. As stipulated in the law's provisions, a designated caregiver — usually a parent or private caregiver — must administer the medication but do so without creating a distraction and remove all excess medication.

But, of course, not everyone is happy, least of all the school district.   Their own reservations are fortified  by the fact that “Jack’s Law” allows a school district to opt out if it can “reasonably demonstrate that it lost federal funding as a result of implementing” the policy. According to The Denver Post (Aug. 22, p. 1A) the law also stipulates that "school district personnel are not required to administer the medication". It includes a further provision that medical marijuana may not be administered on school buses or school-sponsored events  on federal property or “any other location that prohibits marijuana on its property.”

All these stipulations are clearly intended to take cognizance of federal law which diverges from Jack's law and the state constitution, the latter allowing for medical (and recreational use). Noting this divergence, Denver Public Schools has naturally expressed  concern because the federal ban on marijuana is a nonstarter for making a DPS policy.

According to DPS spokeswoman Alexandra Renteria, quoted in The Denver Post:

The substance is not federally approved and the Colorado State Board of Nursing is against its administration"

But this is precisely why this issue is a perfect illustration of "ethical incrementalism", also known as provisional ethics.This was originally explicated by Michaael Shermer  ('The Science of Good and Evil' p. 168):

"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

By extension, ethical provisionalism translated to a legal statute allows for enough flexibility to make difficult  medical choices. In the case of "Jack's law" it's  by way of allowing students the use of an otherwise prohibited substance. This is to ameliorate constant pain and suffering for which there is no other practical option, including the ubiquitous opioids. In Jack Splitt's case the only thing that eases his physical torment is smokeless  marijuana.

The Colorado State Board of Nursing may be opposed but the school district must allow a parent or designated caregiver to administer medical marijuana on school grounds. This elicited a warning from the Colorado Association of School Boards earlier this year regarding the legal implications of “Jack’s Law,”   Responding to that concern, Matt Cook, the association’s director of public policy and advocacy, .stated:

We don’t want to put any school district in a position where they are violating the law,”

Thereby siding  with the parents and students who see the benefits of medical pot. To further underscore this point, Cook added:

We are clearly with these students, and it’s not our intent to harm these kids.”

In other words, we see here the tacit acceptance of an ethical provisionalism, which is responsible and more practical than the moral absolutism inherent in the federal law.

Jack's mom Linn,   didn't need the feds to inform her of the worth of  medical MJ.  She told the Post she saw an almost, immediate change in her son’s demeanor soon after he began taking medical marijuana and cutting down on all his prescribed medications. The puffiness in Jack’s face went down, and he became more wide-eyed and engaged with his surroundings. She said:

It started a whole new world for him.  It opened up some possibilities for him.”

She  began advocating for medical marijuana in schools after a school employee in February 2015 ripped a skin patch that was delivering cannabis-derived medicine off Jack’s arm.

Linn told the Post: “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Where was the compassion?”

But the problem is that ethical and moral absolutists never get to the compassion stage, so blinded are they by the letter of the law. This is why a Catholic Hospital several years ago was prepared to let both mother and baby die from complications in childbirth rather than to at least save the mother. (Fortunately, a compassionate nun did just that and was promptly ostracized)

Linn,  seeing that existing federal regulations trump compassion then went to work with other parents lobbying the state legislature. In 2015 they helped get a law passed that allowed schools to create policies permitting a student’s use of medical marijuana. But none of Colorado’s school districts created such a policy.

Unbowed and unbeaten, Linn and the parents pressed lawmakers again this year with “Jack’s Law,” which passed the state Senate by a 35-0 vote and the House by a 56-9 vote.

Above all else, one can certainly say that "Jack's Law" represents a triumph of ethical provisionalism over moral and legal absolutism.  Maybe, if we are lucky, this sort of approach can wend its way through the rest of our tattered legal culture and incept a reset. Maybe that will start if genuine research is permitted into marijuana's medical effects.


Jack Splitt died Wednesday after feeling ill, and unable to attend school.  In its editorial memorial today The Denver Post noted:

"Splitt died Wedneday at the age of 15, and became the face of the successful push to allow children suffering from the kinds of ailments medical marijuana benefits to be able to use it in the classroom.

Having the guts and character to stare down the enormous taboo subject of marijuana in schools is one thing. Taking up that challenge from a wheelchair while trapped in a body frequently wracked with pain....makes Splitt's accomplishments all the more amazing."

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