Medical marijuana should be legal, and accessible
Published July 13, 2005

A cancer diagnosis is something akin to a death sentence. For many, there is little or no hope. For others, there’s a good chance of recovery, but no certainty, no easy cure, and possibly a lifetime of debilitating treatments and horrifying drugs. Cancer treatments kill the cancer by slowly killing the patient and hoping that the person has the resilience to outlast the disease. Depending on the cancer, the chance of this happening is either reasonably good, or terribly small.

Chemotherapy is literally poison, and the side effects can be debilitating. Hair loss and exhaustion and severe nausea are among these. Marijuana is effective in ameliorating these effects for many people, and is especially useful for those who are not helped by conventional treatments. More specifically, the main chemical component of marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (known colloquially as THC) has been proved to provide relief from cancer pain and nausea related to chemotherapy treatment.

THC is available in a pill form, called dronabinol, which, though very expensive, is legal throughout the United States. Clinical studies have shown no tendency for abuse or dependence (i.e. addiction) from the use of dronabinol, and it has been around since the mid-eighties. However, there are many proponents of smoking natural marijuana for medical purposes. Inhaled marijuana, unlike dronabinol, contains many substances other than THC, compounds that may have additional therapeutic effects. THC is also known to act differently coming from its “natural” form than it does from its synthesized substitute.

There have been clinical studies of smoked marijuana, but these have so far been quite limited. Nevertheless, there are some downsides to the drug, mild as they may be. Motor skills are affected in ways similar to those brought on by drinking alcohol, so operating vehicles while using marijuana is inadvisable. Otherwise, there are no significant effects from the drug. Smoking it in plant form, however, has similar long-term effects to smoking tobacco, although again, these effects have not been studied in detail.

There is also recent evidence from studies undertaken by Manuel Guzmán, at Madrid Complutense University, that cannabinoids (the class of substances found in marijuana) can actively fight cancer, inhibiting the growth of tumors and, unlike chemotherapy, attacking only the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. (Guzmán reviewed his results in the Oct. 2003 issue of Nature Reviews Cancer, Vol. 3, No. 10.) These tests have only been done in animals so far, but are certainly encouraging indications that cannabinoids, whether marijuana or otherwise, will end up as powerful weapons in our struggle against cancer.

As yet, however, the government is lagging behind science in trying to implement these promising results.

While twelve states have now passed provisions either removing entirely state criminal penalties for medical marijuana use, or attempting to lower the penalties for such use, these initiatives apply only to state laws—they cannot in any way effect a change in Federal statutes. On the national level, there has been little progress towards similar legislation. A recent Supreme Court decision confirmed that it is within the rights of the Federal government to arrest and prosecute users of marijuana, even if they are protected by state laws for medical use.

There is no good reason for this persecution. Marijuana is classified by the Controlled Substances Act in Schedule I, reserved for the “most dangerous drugs,” according to the DEA, substances without a “recognized medical use,” lumping it with crack cocaine and heroin. The DEA has some impressive fact sheets on the dangers of marijuana, but a closer look shows that their strongly-worded, authoritative bullet points are not supported by much science, but rather by editorials from James Dobson in the Washington Times, as well as other newspaper articles and links to other articles authored by the DEA and other government agencies tasked by Congress to stop drug use. These are hardly disinterested parties.

Marijuana, when smoked, is not completely safe. Very few drugs are. The DEA disingenuously suggests that they did not legalize opium for pain relief, but morphine instead, an opiate derivative. Of course, morphine is a carefully regulated addictive substance, far more dangerous than smoking a joint. Why is the government so against the idea of similarly regulating medical marijuana? It seems possible that the pharmaceutical companies who make $5 for each dronabinol pill have lobbied the Congress to prevent cancer patients from growing a cheap substitute in their own homes.

The call for medical marijuana, despite the fears of the government, is one for regulated use, not drugged-out abandon. In fact, only through government sanction can addictive substances be properly regulated. Alcohol is a good example of the failure of outright bans (witness the Prohibition years) and the relative success of government regulation.

Let’s encourage our Congress to take action to allow access to a drug that has the potential to significantly improve the lives of many suffering Americans.