Marijuana As Medicine, a 1986 column

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There is a small sliver of sanity in the midst of the current drug dementia — the renewed move to make marijuana available as medicine. Recently, hearings on the medical value of marijuana have been scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The federal government should decide to make marijuana available by prescription to sick people. Such an enlightened decision would be precisely the kind of action that has saved this nation in past emotional disputes — a compromise in the middle ground between the extremes of opinion. We must fashion a bundle of these peaceful compromises, and soon, if we are to head off an increasingly damaging drug war.

The most pitiful victims of our drug wars are the millions of ill Americans denied the full range of possible treatments because our fears about drugs intrude irrationally into the laws controlling what drugs may be used in medicine and how. If we do nothing else, we must back the drug cop and the drug-cop mentality out of medical practice and allow doctors the fullest possible freedom in selecting and administering medicines to our sick.

During the Thirties, Harry Anslinger, the flinty head of the old Federal Bureau of Narcotics, convinced congress that reefers were a threat to our survival and thus the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 restricted this drug, like narcotics, to medical practice. In 1970, the Nixon Administration went even further and placed it in Schedule I of a new federal law, where it became forbidden for use even in medicine, along with such substances as heroin and LSD. Starting in 1972, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has been litigating against the federal government simply to get marijuana put into Schedule II, where it could be used in medicine, but under tight restrictions, like morphine and cocaine.

Despite the harsh federal prohibition, 33 states have passed laws authorizing the use of marijuana in medicine, the federal government has consistently placed roadblocks in the way of implementing truly effective programs for distributing medical marijuana to large numbers of suffering patients.

The wide-eyed federal narcs have fought the rescheduling of pot fiercely. NORML persisted and just won a small but significant victory. DEA has allowed the marketing of Marinol, a medicine containing synthetic THC, the main active ingredient pot, and has agreed to a full administrative hearing on the medical value of natural marijuana and its component parts, such as natural THC pills. NORML’s position is that the full range of natural and synthetic marijuana products should be available to meet the varied needs of the ill. It is asking victims to come forward as witnesses to support that position.

Marijuana is not a miracle drug nor is it a magic cure for any disease. However, several million organically ill people might be helped by marijuana as medicine The most numerous would be found among the hundreds of thousands of cancer patients suffering intense nausea and discomfort from chemotherapy and radiation. To those drug warriors who want to restrict the ill to THC pills, which do help some patients, listen to the voice of Ann Guttentag of Pennsylvania: “After chemotherapy, you can’t even hold a sip of water down.” To this terminal cancer patient, a friendly gift of illegal pot cigarettes was like “a gift from heaven!” She fought her government and finally got legal marijuana cigarettes but died a few months later. So this is a voice from the grave.

Joseph Hutchins faces jail from a Massachusetts judge who recently convicted him of marijuana charges for growing his own medicine. Joe represents a vast number of ill people suffering a range of comparatively rare diseases who stumble upon marijuana to ease their suffering. This straight-arrow Navy Vet contracted scleroderma — which causes tightening of the skin, inability to swallow, and, often, death — while in the service. The [Veteran’s Administration] had him on sever powerful medicines, most addicting narcotics. He was a legal drug addict whose mind, he said, was gone. Joe has thrown away all of the narcotics, uses only pot and a blood pressure medicine, and is now quite functional. His doctors state that marijuana appears to have helped him dramatically although it has not cured his disease.

Robert Randall of the nation’s capital suffers from glaucoma, as do perhaps two million other Americans — 200,000 to 400,000 of whom would be candidates for trying a new medicine such as marijuana. In 1972 a doctor told this young man of 24 that he had the disease and could expect to go blind in 3 – 5 years. Bob discovered by accident that marijuana eased his condition significantly and embarked upon a courageous campaign to obtain legal marijuana cigarettes. THC pills did not help him. Natural marijuana reduced his ocular pressure. With the free help of a major Washington law firm, he won an astounding series of victories and is now the only person I have been able to discover who has received legal marijuana cigarettes by prescription for years (along with other standard medicine) to ease the impact of an illness.

Bob Randall still can see. He asks, “Why am I the only one in the lifeboat?” In a truly human society, why indeed?

Editors Note: This column was originally published in the Fall, 1986 edition of NORML’s Common Sense for America, and is republished with permission from NORML and Arnold Trebach. An update on these events can be found here.