Medicinal smoke

February 04, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At last there may be an antidote to the current epidemic of reefer madness.

Ever since November, when California and Arizona passed initiatives approving the medical use of marijuana, a peculiar haze has been swirling over the whole issue. We've had more people worrying about bad messages than good medicine.

A phalanx of administration officials sprang up to oppose the very idea that marijuana should be legalized as a treatment for the sick. They all issued the same dire warning: These states were sending the wrong signal to kids.

Frankly, I never understood this. Why is allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for such things as the side effects of chemotherapy bad for children? What is the infamous signal being sent to them? If you hurry up and get cancer, you too can get high?

Drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey, however, described the state ballot initiatives as ''hoax initiatives.'' Doctors, he said, could end up even doling out dope for ''writer's cramp.'' Are we hallucinating here?

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala didn't go quite that far. But after listing all the evils of the weed, from addiction to carcinogens, she denied that there were proven benefits to balance the dangers.

And Attorney General Janet Reno ominously reminded doctors that they were subject to federal laws. Prescribing dope could be a prescription for losing your license or even your freedom.

This federal convergence of drug use and abuse kicked up a controversy. So the administration took a step back and passed the bucks, suggesting a $1 million study to review studies on marijuana as medicine.

Now finally an edge of sobriety seems to have been added to the dope debate. An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, the influential doyenne of medical journals, calls the federal policy ''misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane.''

''The advanced stages of many illnesses and their treatment are often accompanied by intractable nausea, vomiting or pain,'' writes editor Jerome Kassirer. ''Thousands of patients with cancer, AIDS and other diseases report they have obtained striking relief from these devastating symptoms by smoking marijuana.''

We may be heading back to reality. What is at stake in this debate is not the minds of little children. This is not about telling kids that marijuana is good for them. Nor is it about growing our own little backyard pharmaceuticals.

The issue is whether marijuana should be reclassified from a Schedule 1 drug -- possibly addictive and with no medical use -- to Schedule 2 drug -- possibly addictive but with a medical use. Whether it will be available from a doctor rather than a dealer.

Dr. Kassirer agrees that marijuana ''may have long-term adverse effects and its use may presage serious addictions.'' But it's absurd to worry about turning an AIDS patient into a pothead. Indeed, the very doctors who can be jailed for prescribing marijuana are allowed to prescribe the more addictive morphine for the same symptoms.

As for the administration's million-dollar call to review the marijuana research before we legalize its use? We've been there, done that. Last week the San Francisco Medical Society, citing dozens of studies about marijuana's effectiveness, diagnosed this as a delay tactic.

Of course, the drug czar disagrees. General McCaffrey responded to the Journal by exhaling his belief that ''smoke is not a medicine.'' He called marijuana a ''psychoactive burning carcinogen.'' This was on the very day a long-buried federal study was unearthed showing that the main ingredient in marijuana did not cause cancer.

I don't think that marijuana is harmless either to the lungs or the kids. Nor do I think it should be unregulated. It's unregulated now. Let the government be the sole distributor, not the arresting officer.

Right now we are in a marijuana muddle. The anti-drug warriors are worrying about any signal that would suggest to the young that marijuana isn't evil. They are denying help to seriously ill patients because they are afraid of enhancing marijuana's image to kids.

So, we have a drug that can help some of our sickest citizens. But they can't get it without breaking the law. Now there's the wrong message.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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