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.)