Nurses back medical marijuana

December 08, 2005

Gina Dennik-Champion (OpEd), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It is difficult for nurses to remain silent when patients are denied access to an effective medical treatment. That is why the Wisconsin Nurses Association supports the medical marijuana bill authored by Rep. Gregg Underheim (R-Oshkosh), known as AB 740.

In taking this position, we are squarely in the mainstream of the public health community. The American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of HIV Medicine are just a few of the health care organizations that have acknowledged that marijuana can be a valuable treatment when used under medical supervision.

A large body of evidence indicates that marijuana can relieve a number of debilitating symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, certain types of pain and the pressure inside the eye that robs glaucoma patients of their sight. Moreover, it can do so with remarkable safety.

Unfortunately, the issue has become shrouded in fear and myth. Exaggerated claims and scientific misunderstandings have tended to overshadow facts and common sense.

For example, we are sometimes warned that marijuana is "addictive." In fact, only a very small percentage of marijuana users ever become dependent - a much smaller percentage than is seen with alcohol or tobacco.

Under proper medical supervision, drugs that are far more addictive and dangerous than marijuana are used beneficially by hundreds of thousands of patients every day. And unlike a great many drugs used for either medical or recreational purposes, marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose.

Contrary to claims sometimes made by opponents, marijuana can provide relief in a number of instances where conventional drugs fail or have unacceptable side effects. A great deal of research has shown that marijuana relieves pain through different mechanisms than conventional pain drugs, including opioids, and can provide relief when these drugs fail.

Particularly encouraging results have come from recent studies involving pain associated with multiple sclerosis well as peripheral neuropathy, an extremely painful condition that afflicts HIV/AIDS patients and others.

It is true that a pill is available containing THC, the component most responsible for marijuana's "high." But research has shown that other components of the plant - called cannabinoids - play an important role in marijuana's therapeutic benefit and may even help to reduce the unwanted side effects of THC.

Just as important, the pill takes one to two hours to work and is absorbed slowly and unevenly. That is why the journal The Lancet Neurology has called oral dosing "the least satisfactory" way to administer cannabinoids. Patients report that the pill makes them too "stoned" to function, while with natural marijuana they can adjust the dose to provide relief without excessive intoxication. The Institute of Medicine, in a 1999 report commissioned by the White House, made the same point.

Some fear that allowing medical use of marijuana sends the wrong message, encouraging teens to experiment with it. But government-sponsored surveys have consistently shown that teen marijuana use has declined, not increased, in states with medical marijuana laws.

In reality, lying to children and teens about a drug's value and risks sends the wrong message. Young people should be taught that all drugs and medicines present risks and that medicine should only be taken under a provider's supervision when the patient is sick.

There is no reason to be frightened of medical marijuana. This is a drug with nearly 5,000 years of recorded medical use and that has been widely used therapeutically throughout the world. It is safer than many medicines Americans take every day.

There is simply no reason to arrest and jail patients battling cancer, MS, AIDS or other terrible illnesses for using marijuana with the recommendation of their health care providers.

Our Legislature should move swiftly to pass AB 740, and Gov. Jim Doyle should sign it into law.

Gina Dennik-Champion is a registered nurse and executive director of the Wisconsin Nurses Association.

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