THE GREAT POT DEBATE
Fight Over Medical Marijuana Goes National
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
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
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
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.