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Why Marijuana is Bad Medicine

Efforts to legalize marijuana (cannabis) for medical purposes are gaining momentum across the United States. Since 1996, referenda or laws have passed in several states legalizing the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. These states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Washington.

There's no shortage of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims involving the medical uses of marijuana. So, it's important to focus our attention on the most reliable sources--medical professionals. Let's consider five of the most frequent pro-marijuana claims and the response from the medical community:

Claim I: Smoking marijuana is the only way to relieve symptoms for some patients.

Some medical patients do experience relief of symptoms from the active ingredient in marijuana--tetrahydrocannabinol--commonly referred to as THC. The symptoms often relieved include nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.1 However, patients can receive a synthetically created version of THC through prescription drugs such as Marinol, available since 1985.2 After extensive testing, Marinol was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and must be distributed in a purified form. By contrast, marijuana varies wildly in THC content, making it impossible to prescribe dosage and potency. Smoking marijuana also creates a distinct spike of THC in blood levels. Marinol, however, is a pill, which time-releases THC--a more effective and medically accepted procedure.

Claim II: The medical benefits of marijuana outweigh any side effects.

If this were true, the FDA would most likely have approved marijuana for medical purposes. Instead, the FDA has repeatedly refused to do so. In fact, no FDA-approved drug is smoked, and in the case of marijuana, smoking it increases chances of lung cancer, as does smoking tobacco. In fact, according to one study, smoking marijuana burdens the respiratory system four times more than an equivalent amount of tobacco smoking.3

Claim III: Marijuana is not a "gateway" drug, leading to the use of harder drugs, like cocaine and heroin.

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that children who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than are children who do not use marijuana.4

Based on these findings, it seems likely that the increased availability and use of marijuana nationwide (even for medical purposes) will cause a corresponding increase in hard drug use. General Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, believes marijuana's influence as a "gateway" drug will only increase, as young people perceive marijuana to be a safe substance. According to McCaffrey, "Referenda that tell our children that marijuana is a 'medicine' send them the wrong signal about the dangers of illegal drugs--increasing the likelihood that more children will turn to drugs."5

Claim IV: Legalization will only give patients with a demonstrated need access to marijuana.

Perhaps the most troubling loophole in medical-marijuana proposals, such as California's Proposition 215 in 1996, is the fact that a patient can use marijuana with merely an oral recommendation by a doctor.6 Similarly, an ordinance passed in 1998 by the Oakland City Council allows those with only a doctor's oral recommendation to possess 1.5 pounds of marijuana and to grow 144 plants at a time.7

Claim V: The legalization of "medicinal" marijuana is not a first step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational drug use.

An examination of state ballot initiatives proposed after voters approved marijuana for medical purposes challenges this claim. After legalizing medical marijuana in Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington state, marijuana advocates openly moved toward their other goals for the 2000 election. In Arizona and Washington, signatures were gathered to decriminalize marijuana for the general public. In Oregon, the goal was to regulate the sale of marijuana to adults through liquor stores. In Alaska, the "2000 Hemp Initiative" asked voters to approve complete legalization of marijuana for those 18 years of age or older. Only Alaska's proponents successfully placed their initiative on the 2000 ballot (where it was defeated). The other three efforts failed to qualify for the ballot.

Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is unnecessary, poses an additional physical threat to patients, may lead to increased illegal drug use, and is a move toward legalization for use by all adults. Marijuana is bad medicine.

ENDNOTES:

1. J.E. Joy, S.J. Watson, J.A. Bensen, editors, MARIJUANA AND MEDICINE: ASSESSING THE SCIENCE BASE (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 00-00-98), p. 207.

2. Ibid.

3. T.C. Wu, D.P. Tashkin, B. Djahed, J.E. Rose, "Pulmonary Hazards of Smoking Marijuana as Compared with Tobacco," New England Journal of Medicine (1988): 318, pp. 347-351.

4. "Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use," Study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 10-00-94. Summary: http://www.casacolumbia.org/newsletter1457/newsletter_show.htm?doc_id=6995.

5. Testimony of General Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, submitted for the record to the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Medical Marijuana Referenda in America, 10-01-97. Online: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/news/testimony/medical.html.

6. D. Satzman, "Officials Denounce Marijuana Initiative," Los Angeles Times, 10-30-96, p. B3.

7. T. Elias, "California Struggles with Issue of Medical Marijuana," Washington Times, 07-21-98, p. A12.


 


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