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Medical marijuana: Legitimate issue or Trojan horse?

By Scott Tibbs, April 4, 1999

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute Of Medicine has put the issue of medical marijuana back into the national spotlight, as well as the issue of marijuana legalization.

Legalization advocates immediately spun the IOM's report as an endorsement of their position. But is the IOM report really a blanket sanction of the use of marijuana for medical purposes?

Actually, the report does not do this. The IOM report specifically advises against the use of smoked marijuana for treatment of disease due to the health risks associated with smoked marijuana. The IOM noted that smoked marijuana is more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke. Specifically, marijuana smoke is five times more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke, according to billboards put up by the Indiana University CommUNITY Educators in 1998. In addition, Cancer magazine reports that women who smoke marijuana increase their likelihood of developing leukemia eleven fold.

Instead of serving as a blanket endorsement of smoked marijuana, the report actually states that the active substances in marijuana can be useful when delivered through other means. A press release by the Family Research Council notes that the main active chemical in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, can be delivered through legal means. In addition, methods of delivering the chemical so that the body absorbs it faster, including inhalers, are currently being developed. The IOM report did allow for patients to smoke marijuana, but only in very limited trials and only after other treatments have failed. It certainly is not a blanket endorsement for people to smoke marijuana for the ailments it is supposed to treat.

I know from experience that there are other drugs on the market to control some of the symptoms medical marijuana is supposed to alleviate, specifically nausea. Since the summer of 1997, I have dealt with unexplained bouts of moderate to severe nausea, sometimes on a daily basis. In the summer of 1998, I was put on Zofran, a very expensive (and very powerful) anti-nausea medication to control my nausea. Later, I was given a prescription for Compazine, a less expensive anti-nausea medication. Both Zofran and Compazine have worked very well to control the ailment that I have, and do not carry the negative health complications that smoked marijuana does.

The issue of medical marijuana appears to be a Trojan horse for the legalization of marijuana at large. By touting the medical benefits of the active substances in cannabis, pro-legalization forces have moved their cause much farther than they would have on its merits alone. This is unfortunate. There are many very sound public policy reasons for the decriminalization of marijuana, and they should not be tied to the medical benefits of it. We have seen way too much politicization of medicine already, and both sides of the issue are doing a disservice to sick people by injecting pro- or anti-legalization politics into the debate over medical marijuana. What sick people need is sound medical and scientific research on the benefits of whatever drug is being tested, not political posturing to advance one ideology or another.