OUR VIEW: Suffering patients are treated like criminals because of a harsh federal law. Let's have compassion.
Todd McCormick left his home in San Diego last month on a mission of mercy to help sick people in the East. The only problem: The help he intended to offer is against the law.
The 24-year-old writer/actor says he intended to give them what his mother first provided him when he was 12 and a Dutch doctor prescribed for him later to ease pain caused by childhood bone cancer - marijuana.
There's a lot of debate about marijuana's medical usefulness. Some doctors don't like it. Others secretly suggest to sufferers of AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, and to paraplegics or others with muscle and nerve spasms, that they use it for pain or nausea when other treatments don't work.
The federal government, though, is unequivocal. It has classified marijuana with heroin as strictly forbidden. And most states treat it that way.
So when McCormick was caught with a suitcase full of marijuana in Ohio, he was slapped behind bars. He now faces charges that could put him in prison for 30 years. McCormick was wrong to flout the law. But that doesn't make the laws smart. And they're not.
A New Hampshire case illustrates why. Russell Hokanson, paraplegic, was convicted of growing pot. But his judge suspended a seven-year sentence. Jail didn't make sense. Hokanson began using marijuana 30 years ago to get off painkillers such as Darvon. Now that he can't smoke it anymore, he pays $24 a month for methadone, which leaves him feeling sick.
In Oklahoma, another paraplegic, Jim Montgomery, was sentenced to life plus l6 years for possessing two ounces of marijuana. Pot eased his pain from a bacterial infection that eats away flesh and bone. A flood of calls to the governor led to his release in June. Now he's on Valium, which stupefies him.
What's the answer to such lunacy?
Not legalization. Marijuana's psychoactive properties and carcinogenic smoke need to be kept well out of the reach of kids.
Instead, California has the right idea. Its Senate is expected to vote this week on an Assembly-passed measure that would let doctors prescribe marijuana for their patients if better drugs aren't available.
Still, the federal governments prohibition will leave sufferers open to federal penalties, which is why other states' efforts to allow medicinal use have fallen flat.
The feds should lighten up. The ban is tougher than for cocaine or morphine, which are more addictive. It won't allow medical experimentation that might determine marijuana's true utility. And rather than shut off illegal trade, it encourages a wider underground network - among people whose only crime is being in pain.
Sick people need help, not a ticket to jail.
The issue of whether to allow crude marijuana to be reclassified as a medicine really boils down to the question of what constitutes medicine, what is best for patients and what are the motives of those seeking its acceptance.
Efforts to reschedule marijuana as a medicine have been completely driven by pro-drug organizations such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana and related groups. NORML has stated that legalization of marijuana as a medicine is pivotal to legalization of marijuana.
Recently, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that crude marijuana does not meet the criteria required to be considered a medicine.
No reputable medical entity has asked for availability of crude marijuana as a medicine, The American Medical Association recently rejected the use of smoked marijuana as a medicine. And a recent survey of l,5OO cancer specialists determined that even if crude marijuana were made available for prescription, it would be the last choice of medicines. Only 9% would prescribe it more than 10 times a year.
The National Institutes of Health has determined that there is no scientific basis to use crude marijuana as a medicine, and the chronic use of marijuana is associated with impairment of memory and other mental functions, respiratory damage, hormonal and immune impairment, and addiction.
The unfortunate reality is that the pro-marijuana movement is exploiting the suffering of patients with chronic illness to its own benefit.
We cannot bypass the usual safety and efficacy process of the Food and Drug Administration because of the hue and cry of a self-serving drug culture which seeks to add medicinal applications of marijuana to mixed messages of legalization of illegal drugs and tolerance of drug use.
Smoked marijuana is as toxic as tobacco and has no place in the medical armamentarium. Other pure forms of THC, the major active ingredient in marijuana, could be developed if medically necessary. Those who propose medical uses or conduct research on the use of marijuana have an ethical responsibility not to expose their subjects to unnecessary risks.
Under current guidelines, marijuana is not a medicine. Using crude marijuana as a medicine would be a step backward to the times of potion and herbal remedies.
Dr. Eric Voth is Chairman of The International Drug Strategy Institute.