By Dr. Joycelyn Elders

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

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 Medical Society.

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 better.

"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 are minor.

"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.

Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2004 The Providence Journal Company
Contact: letters@projo.com
Website: http://www.projo.com/