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Being Alive

The Medical Use of Marijuana


Being Alive 1994 Mar 5: 13

Last October, a San Diego jury acquitted a 39-year-old person with AIDS who testified that he had been growing marijuana to ease his nausea and stimulate appetite. Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of National Review, says that he turned to pot for relief from the inevitable vomiting when he underwent chemotherapy last year "and not one of my doctors or nurses discouraged me." Others say that the drug has helped them reverse drastic weight loss by giving them the desire, once again, to eat. Robert, a 40-year-old AIDS patient, said an occasional puff of marijuana lifted him out of depression. "It brightens your life," he said. "It motivates you. It energizes you." For years, people with AIDS, cancer and other diseases have said marijuana helps them cope with their ailments. Last August, California legislators endorsed a resolution urging Federal approval of its use as medicine. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders has said that if physicians felt marijuana "would be beneficial for use by the patient, it should be available." To the contrary, the Clinton Administration supports the Drug Enforcement Administration's position that marijuana has no therapeutic value and ought not be legalized. In fact, it is defending that policy in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff seeks to define marijuana's therapeutic value. If the plaintiff wins, the case could be a first step towards legalization of marijuana.

In Washington and San Francisco an underground "pharmacy" called the Cannabis Buyers' Club dispenses marijuana in medicine-like plastic vials with a warning label. Many people with AIDS are unwilling or too sick to buy marijuana from a dealer, and the street price is often quite high. The Cannabis Buyers' Club screens applicants and requires a physician's statement saying that the doctor has explained the risks and benefits of marijuana, would consider prescribing it if it were legal, and will monitor the patient's progress.

Medical opinion, however, holds that marijuana contains 360 compounds besides cannabinoids, and the smoke of a marijuana cigarette contains noxious vapors of carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde and vinyl chloride, as well as phenol, creosol and naphthalene. Marijuana smoke also has twice as many cancer-producing substances (benzanthracene and benzopyrene) as tobacco cigarettes. Prolonged smoking of marijuana can result in persistent impairment of memory and of psychomotor performance, as well as emphysema-like symptoms.

The therapeutic component of marijuana that can relieve vomiting for some patients is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), available in pill form on medical prescription (marinol). THC also produces acute, undesirable psychic and cardiovascular side effects, and has a depressant effect on immunity, which is not a good indicator for patients with cancer or AIDS who already have impaired immunity.

Nonetheless, Federal health officials are now reviewing the prohibition on the medical use of marijuana, according to Dr. Philip Lee, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. "The review is in keeping with the practices of regularly reviewing policies and procedures but does not signal a change in the current policy, nor imply that current policy will be reversed," Dr. Lee said.

From 1976 until 1992, the federal government allowed a small number of individuals to take marijuana for medicinal purposes of various kinds, but this ended in a March, 1992, ruling of the Bush Administration. At that time, hundreds of applications requesting permission to take marijuana for medicinal purposes were denied. And William Ruzzamenti, director of public affairs for the Drug Enforcement Administration said that a reversal of the 1992 decision is not likely at this time.

Kevin Zeese, vice president and counsel for the Drug Policy Foundation, a private nonprofit education organization, said, "It's time we stopped making criminals out of seriously ill Americans by denying them a medicine that obviously helps. The ban on medical marijuana is inconsistent with the research of marijuana's effectiveness and inconsistent with the feelings of patients and doctors throughout the country." (John Alan Cohan is an attorney specializing in wills, trusts and probate. He welcomes your calls at 800.255.1529 or 310.557.9900.)


Information in this article was accurate in March 5, 1994. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.