The great pot debate
January 26, 2005
Michelle Keller , The Stanford Daily
The line dividing recreational drugs and legitimate medical drug is growing increasingly blurry. Legal drugs can be abused, and illicit drugs can often be successfully used to treat medical conditions.
Heroin, for example, was once sold by the Bayer Corporation for use as a cough suppressant and to aid recovery from morphine addiction. Of course the drug was rapidly banned once health officials and doctors recognized that it was highly addictive. Most would argue that this was a smart move, but perhaps the arguments are not so clear for other drugs.
For instance, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a study at Harvard that will look into whether or not ecstasy can improve the emotional health of terminally ill patients. Other researchers have investigated the active ingredients in “magic mushrooms” and how they can help people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. So where does one draw the line between helping a select group of sick patients and creating a national drug abuse problem?
Nowhere is this controversy more alive than in the debate over the legalization of medical marijuana — a battle based right here in California. State Proposition 215, enacted in 1996, allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana on a case-by-case basis. The drug is typically used to relieve patients with chronic pain, increase appetite in AIDS patients, treat mood disorders and reduce nausea associated with chemotherapy.
Many doctors believe it works. One Harvard study of 2,000 physicians found that over 40 percent of oncologists recommend the use of marijuana following chemotherapy treatments.
Prop. 215 allows patients to claim exemption from the law if they can provide evidence of special medical circumstances. However, since buying marijuana is still illegal in California, patients must grow their own. In Sonoma County, for example, those who are exempt may cultivate up to 99 plants and can possess up to three pounds of marijuana at any one time. Those who cannot grow their own supply often make special arrangements through “Cannabis Clubs,” using a special “club card.”
Despite Prop. 215, tension still exists between law enforcement and medicinal marijuana users, particularly because marijuana is illegal under federal law, which is interpreted by some to trump state law. As a result, cannabis clubs and even patients’ homes continue to be raided by police.
Yet this spring, one Supreme Court case might change everything. The case concerns a California mother of two, Angel McClary Raich, who suffers from a number of medical problems, including tumors in her brain and uterus. She began using marijuana when no other medication allowed her to function. In 2002, Raich, along with another patient and two caregivers, sued the United States government to prevent federal authorities from interfering with her use of medical marijuana. If the Supreme Court rules against Raich, the federal government will have the final say on the legalization of the drug.
But enough legal talk. This is a health page, and the real question remains: Do the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh the costs?
To start off, let’s go over what happens to your body when you smoke a joint. Marijuana is composed of thousands of chemical compounds. The one that causes users to feel “high” is called delta-9-tetrahydrocannibol, also known as THC. When you inhale from a pipe or a joint, THC enters your lungs, dissolves into your bloodstream and eventually makes its way to your brain. THC binds to specific sites known as cannabinoid receptors, which are found in regions of the brain related to pleasure, thought, concentration, memory, perception of sensations and time and movement. As a result, when you feel high, your memory, thought and concentration are also impaired.
Additionally, with each inhalation, carcinogenic compounds make their way into your body, many of which can irritate your mouth, throat and lungs. Marijuana is unique in that it is nowhere near as addictive as other drugs — including legal drugs. Even so, long-term use has the potential to lead to addiction.
What about the medical benefits? As mentioned, marijuana can help people with severe pain, cancer patients suffering from side effects of chemotherapy and AIDS patients who have no appetite. In some cases, marijuana can help people conquer a day full of pain, nausea or extreme fatigue.
Law enforcement and public health officials fear that if medical marijuana is completely legalized across the nation, use — both prescribed and recreational — will skyrocket.
There is evidence to support this concern. After Oregon made use of medical marijuana legal in 1998, the number of users spiked much higher than expected. Today, 10,000 Oregonians hold medical marijuana cards. Some question whether all cases are legitimate — and whether patients share their marijuana with non-patients.
But do a few people abusing the system justify denying everyone who needs the drug for legitimate medical reasons? If a handful of people overdose on morphine, should this important analgesic be banned entirely?
The decision no longer lies in the hands of Californians — or any other common citizens, for that matter. We can only watch and wait to see what the court decides this spring.