Will our leaders be dopes? Or will they have the courage to legalize medical marijuana?

April 30, 2007

Jim Ritter, Health Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times

Multiple sclerosis patient Julie Falco makes a compelling case that Illinois should legalize marijuana for medical uses.

Three times a day, Falco eats a small marijuana brownie to relieve tingling, numbness, spasticity, bladder problems, insomnia and depression. Pot works so well she has tossed out her prescription drugs.

"I'm in a better place physically, mentally and spiritually from taking this," she says.

Falco, 42, recently testified for a bill that would legalize medical marijuana. A Senate vote could come as early as today.

But the bill faces significant opposition from Republicans and Downstate Democrats.

"Legislators tend to be unnecessarily nervous," says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. "It may take a couple of years for them to get the courage for a floor vote to pass."

Regardless of what happens in Springfield, momentum appears to be building for medical marijuana. New Mexico recently became the 12th state to approve its use.

Marijuana can reduce anxiety and nausea, relieve pain and stimulate appetite. Advocates say it can relieve symptoms of cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, epilepsy, MS, Crohn's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

But is pot really such a wonder drug?

The Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies say "no sound scientific studies [have] supported medical use of marijuana."

While there have been many anecdotal reports of marijuana's medical benefits, these claims have been difficult to study scientifically.

Obtaining marijuana for research is a hassle. The federal government provides legal marijuana for studies. But researchers have complained about the quality, and have been barred from growing their own.

Drug companies aren't willing to invest millions of dollars in marijuana studies. Because marijuana can't be patented, there's not much profit potential.

And marijuana studies are subject to bias from the "placebo effect." That is, some patients might get better simply because they believe the drug will help.

To prevent such bias, researchers typically give a real drug to one group of patients and an inactive placebo to a comparison group. Patients don't know which they're getting. But this type of study is difficult to do with marijuana. Because pot creates a "high," patients know when they're getting the real drug.

Sending the wrong message?
A 1999 Institute of Medicine study found the beneficial effects of marijuana are "generally modest, and in most cases there are more effective medications." However, some people don't respond to legal meds. In such cases, marijuana would be "moderately well suited" for such conditions as weight loss from AIDS and nausea from chemotherapy.

Pot certainly worked wonders for Barb Marcotte of Chicago, who has HIV. One of her HIV drugs was causing nausea and vomiting. "I would smoke a little bit of marijuana before a meal and it really got me through," she says.

Under the proposed bill, a patient could get a prescription for medical marijuana from a doctor, advanced practice nurse or physician assistant.

A patient could legally possess up to 12 marijuana plants and 2.5 ounces. A patient or caregiver could grow marijuana indoors or buy it from a nonprofit dispensary.

Dispensaries have become controversial in California, where medical marijuana is a $1 billion business. For example, an operator of one supposedly nonprofit dispensary in Los Angeles was accused of illegal drug trafficking when an investigation found he raked in $2.3 million in just eight months.

Such abuses aren't likely in Illinois, because the proposed bill provides tighter regulations, Mirken says.

The sponsor, Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), says his bill is a compassionate measure "for law-abiding people who happen to be ill."

But Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) believes lawmakers should not be in the business of approving medications -- that's the FDA's job.

And Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora) worries the bill sends the wrong message to young people. The Institute of Medicine says there's no data to either support or refute that concern.

Medical organizations are split. The Illinois Nurses Association supports the bill because some patients "suffer excruciating pain that cannot always be relieved by standard pain medications." But the American Medical Association says marijuana should remain illegal, pending the outcome of "adequate and well-controlled studies."

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