Medical marijuana could relieve many in pain, if we'll let it

September 24, 2007

Robyn Chaky, OpEd, Ocala Star-Banner (FL)

Imagine you are forced to put on a pair of short shorts every morning when you wake up because if long pants were to lightly brush your skin during the day, the sensation would be similar to a thousand spiders crawling up your legs.

Imagine your eyesight is stranger than you remember it, as there is excess pressure on your eyes forcing you to use mainly your central vision. Imagine that every sensation you feel is a bit off, your body twitches because of unknown sources. Imagine that no matter how good food may smell, you never want to taste it.

All the strange sensations mentioned above are just a few effects of a debilitating nerve disease, multiple sclerosis. Then, imagine that you can feel better, almost normal, but the only way for you to regain your senses is illegal, as the drug that would ease most of your ills is marijuana.

Marijuana was legal - even approved by a panel that sets standards for pharmaceutical drugs in the United States - until political pressure forced the criminalization of it in 1937. Although a few states have passed new regulations permitting use of "medical marijuana," which is not as effective and much more costly than the other kind, politicians simply refuse to endorse a so called "gateway" drug.

But is this drug really that harmful? We hear about the side effects and overdoses of currently prescribed, even over-the-counter, medications daily. Can marijuana be much worse than these?

Scientific evidence indicates it is not.
John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in March 2002 that "smoked marijuana damages the heart, the brain, lungs and immune system. It impairs learning and interferes with memory, perception and judgment. Smoked marijuana contains cancer-causing compounds and has been implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes."

He voices the stereotypical judgments of the drug made by most people who oppose its legalization. However, many of the myths have been debunked by studies that have been ongoing for decades.

Based on a 30-year research project, editors of The Lancet, a British medical journal, established that "the smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health."

The cognitive, information processing and memory effects of the drug are true but only while the individual is under the influence of the drug. Individuals in a study had no problems remembering things they already knew, although they did find it difficult to take in new information. But this effect is temporary and there is not adequate evidence to prove that even abundant daily use of the drug can cause any permanent damage.

Studies performed on drivers show that marijuana may make them "more cautious," but not necessarily dangerous, and the capability of a person to operate a vehicle while under the influence of marijuana showed no major impairments of these drivers. Alcohol, though legal, has been proven to drastically deteriorate a driver's ability.

There is also no substantial evidence that marijuana is a "gateway" drug, that it can lead to the use of more dangerous drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, therefore, people who have used less popular drugs are very likely to have tried marijuana as well. To abolish the "gateway drug" theory, consider that many people who smoke cannabis do not use other drugs on a regular basis. "Pot smokers" are not heavy drug users who party all night on cocaine, ecstasy and heroin; they are simply people who smoke marijuana.

For more than 20 years, the Netherlands has allowed its citizens to purchase and use cannabis. For most age groups studied, marijuana use in the Netherlands is comparable to that of the United States. Crime has not risen, and neither has the use of illicit drugs.

The Netherlands modifies its regulations periodically, but overall this country seeks to "normalize rather than dramatize cannabis use," according to this study.

Marijuana foes also claim it is highly addictive, even dangerous. But of the 1 percent of Americans who smoke marijuana on a daily basis, the number who become dependent is minimal. In contrast to opiates, alcohol and nicotine, it is impossible to develop a physical addiction to marijuana - if individuals claim as much, their minds have convinced their bodies that they "need" it. This type of dependence can happen with anything.

A survey on drug dependence showed marijuana scored the lowest of tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, heroin and anxiolytics, making marijuana's addiction equivalent to that of coffee. A study performed on rats and monkeys revealed that an adult would have to consume several thousand marijuana cigarettes in a day to risk a lethal overdose. "It is simply impossible," the study said, "to kill oneself by smoking or eating too much marijuana."

We must also consider our overcrowded court system. Arrest rates for marijuana possession are higher than arrest rates for violent crimes; they represent an astonishing 45 percent of all drugs arrests, yet these people have committed victimless crimes.

Meanwhile, there is a mindset among opponents of marijuana that "pot smokers are lazy." However, this notion, having been subjected to 25 years of studies, has no evidence to support it. In fact, employed adults who smoke marijuana tend to have higher wages and stricter work ethics than those who don't. The only correlation with what's known as "amotivational syndrome" is that people who are routinely intoxicated by any means (marijuana, pills, alcohol, or other drugs) are routinely less productive members of society.

The medicinal uses of marijuana are the main reason we should decriminalize it. Right behind that is taking an enormous burden off our judicial system. Last but not least, scientists have proven marijuana is not the type of drug it has always been thought to be.

Life for people facing terminal illnesses, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and AIDS - to name a few - could be greatly improved and more comfortable if marijuana were legalized.

The Netherlands offers a wonderful and encouraging study. We should consider this and other new studies, as the drug has been used as medicinal treatment for thousands of years with no serious consequences, and since scientists and health officials have discredited the cons to decriminalizing marijuana.

Now all we need to do is convince our government of the potential benefits of doing so.

Robyn Chaky is a student at Webster College and majors in criminal justice. She lives in Belleview.

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