2006-05-11 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude Medical Marijuana Relief Is Not Reefer Madness

By Neil S. Friedman

A leading argument for legalizing medical marijuana is that it could lead to misuse. But...it is not uncommon for prescribed drugs to be misused or lead to dependency.
A leading argument for legalizing medical marijuana is that it could lead to misuse. But...it is not uncommon for prescribed drugs to be misused or lead to dependency. Despite years of urging from medical professionals and convincing scientific evidence, the federal government continually refuses to authorize the use of medical marijuana. Just last month the Food and Drug Administration - undoubtedly with prodding from the Bush administration - for no apparent reason, issued a report challenging the medicinal value of marijuana.

Just about a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not legalize marijuana for medical purposes, though Justice Stephen Breyer, who voted with the majority, suggested the FDA might consider making it available with a prescription. Before the Court's decision, medical marijuana use under a doctor's care was legal for patients in only ten states, but New York was not among them.

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies Web site: Symptoms, if not diseases, can be relieved by marijuana, but for most patients there are more effective approved medicines. On the other hand, basic science suggests the potential benefit from marijuana in combination with other drugs as a compassionate alternative. However, the Institute also recommends additional research to determine any potential lung cancer or other health risks and keeping a tight rein on its use for the terminally ill and patients who don't respond to other treatments.

Nevertheless, patients suffering from debilitating illnesses, including AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, might reject those risks knowing a prescribed dose of marijuana will offer some relief from nausea and chronic pain. For years glaucoma victims maintained the drug was effective in alleviating the painful pressure caused by the illness.

Actually, the government is preventing further assessment of medical marijuana because it prohibits scientists from acquiring or growing it for testing purposes.

Marijuana's use for medicinal purposes is an age-old remedy. Like the ancient art of acupuncture, which has been known to bring relief to some modern sufferers of a variety of ailments, the Chinese used marijuana as far back as 2700 B.C. for gout, rheumatism and malaria.

Medical marijuana advocates contend there's overwhelming evidence it can relieve certain types of symptoms caused by a few illnesses or by the side effects of harsh drugs used to treat them. And, they say, it does so with remarkable safety and is less toxic than some drugs that physicians regularly prescribe to patients.

Before he was the Majority Leader, Tennessee Senator Bill Frist argued, "I believe that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that there are less dangerous medicines offering the same relief from pain and other medical symptoms."

Perhaps the conservative Republican, who I presume is a recipient of pharmaceutical company donations, might take the time to discuss the issue with patients seeking relief before totally dismissing it.

Marijuana treatment for people afflicted with multiple sclerosis gained widespread interest two years ago when television talk show host Montel Williams publicly acknowledged he had been using the drug under his doctor's authorization. The Emmy Award-winning host, who contracted MS in 1999, said his physician recommended marijuana when prescription painkillers, which caused irritating side effects, failed to relieve his pain or control spasms triggered by the crippling neurological disease. In testimony before the New York State legislature two years ago, Williams said, "I'll continue to break the law every day...it's the only way I can stand here now."

In the wake of Williams' revelation, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau advocated legal-ization of medicinal marijuana and said he believed those suffering from a variety of ailments would use it "responsibly."

The New York State legislature considered a bill legalizing medical marijuana two years ago, but it lacked adequate support to be offered for a vote in either chamber. Since the 2005 Supreme Court decision, the assembly's health committee is preparing revamped legislation in support for medicinal marijuana, but, for the time being, it remains in typical Albany limbo.

A leading argument from those opposed to legalizing medical marijuana is that it could lead to misuse. But maybe they should be reminded that it is not uncommon for prescribed drugs to be misused or lead to dependency.

It should be noted that several controlled substances - i.e. morphine, Valium, some steroids - are otherwise illegal, but can be prescribed by physicians in extreme cases.

Conservative radio talk show Rush Limbaugh told listeners several years ago he had become dependent on the highly-addictive pain killer OxyContin and subsequently admitted he fraudulently obtained over 2,000 pills in a six-month period. And, just last week, Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy, son of Kennedy clan patriarch Senator Ted Kennedy, admitted being addicted to painkillers after he was involved in a traffic mishap.

Medical marijuana exploitation drew interest last spring when federal authorities cracked an international drug trafficking ring that used lawful dispensaries in San Francisco as fronts for distributing illegal drugs and laundering money. That incident clearly demonstrated that should medical marijuana ever be legalized, it must be safeguarded, administered and dispensed with the same painstaking limitations as other prescription drugs.

Narrow-minded opponents of legalizing medical marijuana may be blind to the crux of the issue as they conjure up images of pot-smokers making illicit deals with patients and doctors just to undergo the euphoria that accompanies the marijuana experience. They should, instead, relax, have a cocktail and have a little compassion for those suffering from diseases that make everyday a living hell.

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