Court's Marijuana Ruling Was No Surprise

by Shawn E. Glazer

The Supreme Court's decision on May 14 that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use" was no surprise. The members of the Supreme Court, like the rest of America, have spent decades under the thrall of propaganda against the "evil weed." Following the Supreme Court's ruling, Norma Anderson, state senator from Lakewood, said, "I'm going to assume our law will also be overturned. I will not shed any tears. In fact, I'm quite gleeful." I am continually saddened that politicians like Anderson place political posturing above the health and comfort of the sickest among us.

As a physician I was initially taught about marijuana only in the category of drugs of abuse. It was lumped in with the far more dangerous drugs heroin and cocaine.

Once leaving the classroom, my own patients began to open my eyes. One of the first to admit to me to using marijuana was an AIDS-infected, soft-spoken mother of two. She brewed tea from the flowers and used it to combat the nausea that came with the drugs she had to take to stay alive. Concerned about her well-being and the safety of her children I urged her to stop and gave her prescriptions for marinol, a synthetic derivative of marijuana, and different anti-nausea drugs. Over the next few months she lost weight and the "T-cell" count that reflected the health of her immune system dropped dramatically. She could no longer hold down the medications she needed to live. I felt I had violated medicine's primary rule of "First do no harm." I relented on my discouragement of marijuana use for her. As she began to improve, I began to research the issue on my own.

There is evidence that marijuana can be helpful in a variety of ailments including glaucoma, the nausea and loss of appetite that people undergoing cancer and AIDs treatment suffer from, and muscle pain and spasms from diseases like multiple sclerosis. It has risks, certainly, but no more than many other commonly prescribed medications.

The harmful effects of marijuana have been grossly overstated to the general public. It does not drive people mad or cause instant addiction. I have never once seen or read of a death due to pure marijuana overdose while I have seen patients die from overdoses of several different prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Every day, doctors prescribe potentially addicting opiates such as codeine. In doing so they do not encourage drug abuse, alcoholism, or drunk driving. Similarly, as a society, we must distinguish between medical use and abuse of any substance.

When an elected official such as Sen. Anderson says she is "quite gleeful" about the defeat of medical marijuana legalization, one wonders why. Would she be gleeful to watch patients face a choice between the risk of jail or taking medicine that decreases pain and prolongs lives? I pray she never has to make such a decision in her own life.

We must look at who wins and who loses from keeping marijuana illegal. The winners include the pharmaceutical companies that synthesize less effective and more expensive medications. Also benefiting are law enforcement agencies, which seize property of marijuana users and keep the proceeds.

The losers are the critically ill and their families. Some, like the young woman above, are fortunate not to run afoul of the law. Others are not so lucky. Activist Peter McWilliams suffered from both cancer and AIDS. He kept in decent health with the use of marijuana as an anti-nausea medicine -- that is until drug enforcers arrested him and stopped him from taking marijuana. Peter then choked to death on his own vomit.

It is time as a society to make decisions on a higher level, decisions based on scientific research and respect for the individual. Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has done more harm than good. Medical decisions belong in the laboratory and the exam room, not the courtroom.

Shawn E. Glazer is a metro Denver family-practice physician.

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