Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up in Smoke

November 11. Last week the NH Senate narrowly failed to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the bill to allow medical use of marijuana. Bummer. Objections ranged from concern about regulating cultivation and distribution to worries that legalizing this use would send a “wrong message” to kids. Many feel, myself included, that allowing seriously ill patients to have legal access to what, for many, is the only palliative is not only a no-brainer but a political initiative grounded in compassion, wisdom and practicality. However, this issue seems to whip opponents into a frenzy of misapprehensions, such as the following.

1. Authorized distribution sites, however well regulated, would make it easier for kids to get their hands on the drug.

Does anyo seriously believe that kids can’t get hold of anything they want right now? Schoolyards apparently are orgies of intoxication, rife with crystal meth, oxycontin, cocaine, alcohol and any number of other controlled or illegal substances. The bill would have licensed three nonprofit “compassion centers” where patients or their caregivers holding state-approved identification cards could receive up to two ounces of marijuana every ten days. Dude, two ounces every ten days does not a party make.

2. Cultivation and distribution could not be adequately controlled.

I spoke last week with Representative Evalyn Merrick, chief author of the bill, who said that some potential clients complained that the proposed system would be so tightly regulated that they would have a harder time obtaining the drug legally than they do now. However, they were willing to undergo a more cumbersome process rather than continue to deal with potentially dangerous dealers or face a felony conviction.

3. State law regulating marijuana should not be in conflict with federal law.

On October 19, President Obama announced that the Justice Department would no longer seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state law. This is a powerful acknowledgment of the legitimacy of marijuana as a medicine.

4. Other medications are available to treat the symptoms of serious illness.

According to many studies, including a 1999 report entitled “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base” from the Institute of Medicine (part of the US National Academy of Sciences) and the American Public Health Association’s resolution supporting safe and legal access, marijuana is one of the most effective substances for assuaging the pain, nausea, and anxiety that people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses endure—for many it’s the only substance that does work. It’s also proven effective in alleviating conditions such as glaucoma, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer’s, among many others.

5. Marijuana is too dangerous to use as medication.

Au contraire. The DEA’s chief administrative law judge ruled in 1988 that marijuana is “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known.” It has never caused a lethal overdose, unlike, for example, Tylenol.

6. Smoking marijuana could have long-term health consequences.

This is my personal favorite. Hey, if I have Stage IV brain cancer or full-blown AIDS, I’m not going to be too worried about the condition of my lungs twenty years hence, but that’s just me.

7. Legalizing marijuana for medical use sends a “terrible message.”

Those who take this stand—allowing that a drug such as marijuana might have a legitimate use actually implies that irresponsible use is okay—must then be in favor of not just regulating but eliminating liquor stores, cigarette sales and all valuable but potentially abuse-able drugs like oxycontin. No? Hmmm…

…which brings me to the final, perhaps most disturbing (and least acknowledged) undercurrent in this debate: the fact, as noted in the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, of the inherent difficulties in marketing a non-patentable herb. The very “naturalness” of marijuana limits the amount of profit pharmaceutical companies can make.

Drug dealers oppose legalization of marijuana for any reason because that would erode their obscene business. Pharmaceutical companies oppose legalization of marijuana for medical use because there’s no profit in it. One way or another, it seems to come down to money and that seems to me to be a very wrong message indeed.


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