March 26, 2004 - The Providence Journal (RI)
Myths About Medical Marijuana
By Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. surgeon general, 1993-94, and
Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University of
Arkansas School of Medicine
Return to Drug War News:
Don't Miss Archive
THE RHODE ISLAND General Assembly is now considering
legislation to permit the medical use of marijuana by seriously
ill patients whose physicians have recommended it.
This sensible, humane bill deserves swift passage. The evidence
is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain,
nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses
as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS -- or by the harsh drugs
sometimes used to treat them. And it can do so with remarkable
safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs
that physicians prescribe every day.
But right now, Rhode Island law subjects seriously ill patients
to the threat of arrest and jail for simply trying to relieve
some of their misery. There is no good reason that sick people
should face such treatment.
Still, foes of the medical-marijuana bill keep raising objections.
So let's look at their arguments, one by one:
"There is no evidence that marijuana is a medicine."
The Truth: The medical literature on marijuana goes
back 5,000 years. In a 1999 study commissioned by the White House,
the Institute of Medicine reported, "nausea, appetite loss,
pain and anxiety . . . all can be mitigated by marijuana."
In its April 2003 issue, the British medical journal The Lancet
reported that marijuana relieves pain in virtually every
test that scientists use to measure pain relief.
"The medical community doesn't support this; just a
bunch of drug legalizers do."
The Truth: Numerous medical and public-health organizations
support legal access to medical marijuana. National groups include
the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public
Health Association and the American Nurses Association. Regional
groups include the New York State Association of County Health
Officials, the California Medical Association and the Rhode Island
I know of no medical group that believes that jailing sick
and dying people is good for them.
"Marijuana is too dangerous to be medicine; it's bad
for the immune system, endangering AIDS and cancer patients."
The Truth: Unlike many of the drugs we prescribe every
day, marijuana has never been proven to cause a fatal overdose.
Research on AIDS patients has debunked the claim of harm to the
immune system: In a study at San Francisco General Hospital,
AIDS patients using medical marijuana gained immune-system cells
and kept their virus under control as well as patients who received
a placebo. They also gained more needed weight.
"There are other drugs that work as well as marijuana,
including Marinol, the pill containing THC (the main psychoactive
chemical in marijuana)."
The Truth: These other drugs don't work for everyone.
The Institute of Medicine noted: "It is well recognized
that Marinol's oral route of administration hampers its effectiveness,
because of slow absorption and patients' desire for more control
over dosing." Inhalation gives a more rapid response and
better results. For some very sick people, marijuana simply works
"Smoke is not medicine; no real medicine is smoked."
The Truth: Marijuana does not need to be smoked. Some
patients prefer to eat it, while those who need the fast action
and dose control provided by inhalation can avoid the hazards
of smoke through simple devices called vaporizers. For many who
need only a small amount -- such as cancer patients trying to
get through a few months of chemotherapy -- the risks of smoking
"Medical-marijuana laws send the wrong message to kids,
encouraging teen marijuana use."
The Truth: That fear, raised in 1996, when California
passed the first effective medical-marijuana law, has not come
true. According to the official California Student Survey, teen
marijuana use in California rose steadily from 1990 to 1996,
but began falling immediately after the medical-marijuana law
was passed. Among ninth graders, marijuana use in the last six
months fell by more than 40 percent from 1995-96 to 2001-02 (the
most recent available figures).
It is simply wrong for the sick and suffering to be casualties
in the war on drugs. Let's get rid of the myths and institute
sound public-health policy. The Rhode Island General Assembly
should pass the medical-marijuana bill immediately.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders was U.S. surgeon general in 1993-94
and is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University
of Arkansas School of Medicine.