Lies cloud medical marijuana debate

February 12, 2005

Larry McKeon, Chicago Sun-Times

As a legislator, I am used to political disagreements, and I enjoy a healthy debate. But when a former White House official crisscrosses our state, deliberately spreading misinformation about a proposal to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, that's where I draw the line.

The proposal is House Bill 0407, my bill to permit seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana without fear of arrest and jail under Illinois law.

It is modeled after 10 existing state laws that are working well and have received broad support from the public and -- most important -- from the medical and public health community. Organizations supporting such legislation include the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association, the Illinois Nurses Association, the state medical societies of New York, California and Rhode Island, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the American Academy of HIV Medicine -- doctors who specialize in treating HIV/AIDS -- among many others.

As a person living with AIDS, those last two are particularly important to me. I know firsthand how tough this disease is to beat.

But Andrea Barthwell, former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is telling a different story. She is crisscrossing Illinois giving a series of lectures claiming that medical marijuana is 'a cruel hoax,' not supported by the medical community at all. To hear Barthwell tell it, I'm the pawn of a sinister cabal of 'legalizers' who 'use the pain and suffering of patients' to further their nefarious agenda.

What utter nonsense. Unfortunately, Barthwell has turned down my offer to debate the issue.

That's a shame, because she has a long history of saying things about medical marijuana that simply are not true. Interviewed on PBS' ''News Hour With Jim Lehrer'' in October 2003, she claimed that 'no credible medical organizations' support medical marijuana. In a Feb. 17, 2004, Chicago Tribune column, she insisted that 'marijuana is so complex, unstable and harmful that sensible physicians and researchers consider it unethical to expose individuals to the risks associated with smoking it.'

In fact, what the medical community actually says is precisely the opposite of what Barthwell claims. In its official policy statement on medical marijuana, the American Public Health Association stated, 'Marijuana has an extremely wide acute margin of safety for use under medical supervision . . . greater harm is caused by the legal consequences of its prohibition than possible risks of medicinal use.'

In a 1997 editorial, the New England Journal of Medicine -- widely regarded as the most prestigious medical journal in the world -- called the ban on medical use of marijuana 'misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane.'

In a November 2003 letter to New York legislators, the American Academy of HIV Medicine put it this way: 'When appropriately prescribed and monitored, marijuana/cannabis can provide immeasurable benefits for the health and well-being of our patients.'

And the Illinois Nurses Association, in a position paper issued last December, said, 'Cannabis [marijuana] is considered by the scientists directly involved with cannabinoid research to be one of the least toxic substances known that delivers a therapeutic response. . . . There is almost a half-century of research that supports the safety and efficacy of cannabis for conditions such as reducing nausea and vomiting, stimulating appetite, controlling spasticity, decreasing the suffering from the experience of chronic pain, and controlling seizures.'

That's not my opinion. It's the opinion of some of this state's and this nation's leading health experts, the people who every day do the hard work of caring for people battling illnesses like cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.

I welcome an honest debate about my medical marijuana bill, but let's base that debate on facts, not spin. Illinoisans deserve better than Andrea Barthwell's travelling con job.

State Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago) represents the 13th District in the Illinois House of Representatives.



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