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Part VI

NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.

VI. Marijuana Prohibition Makes No Exception for Medical Users

   Marijuana prohibition applies to everyone, including the sick and dying. Of all the negative consequences of marijuana prohibition, none is as tragic as the denial of medicinal marijuana to the tens of thousands of seriously ill patients who could benefit from its therapeutic use.

    It is clear from available studies and rapidly accumulating anecdotal evidence that marijuana is therapeutic in the treatment of a number of serious ailments and is less toxic and costly than the conventional medicines for with which it may be substituted. In many cases, marijuana is more effective than the commercially available drugs it replaces. Prestigious groups such as the American Public Health Association, the Federation of American Scientists, and the British Medical Association, as well as New England Journal of Medicine editor Jerome Kassirer, publicly endorse the medicinal use of marijuana. Moreover, in 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration's own chief administrative law judge, Francis L. Young, declared that marijuana was "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." 44

    The best-established medical use of smoked marijuana is as an anti-nauseant for cancer chemotherapy. During the 1980s, smoked marijuana was shown to be an effective anti-emetic in six different state-sponsored clinical studies involving nearly 1,000 patients. 45 For the majority of these patients, smoked marijuana proved more effective than both conventional prescription anti-nauseants and oral THC (marketed today as the synthetic pill, Marinol). Currently, many oncologists are recommending marijuana to their patients despite its prohibition. 46

    In addition to its usefulness as an anti-emetic, scientific and anecdotal evidence suggests that marijuana is a valuable aid in reducing pain and suffering for patients with a variety of other serious ailments. For example, marijuana alleviates the nausea, vomiting, and the loss of appetite experienced by many AIDS patients without accelerating the rate at which HIV positive individuals develop clinical AIDS or other illnesses. In addition, it is generally accepted -- by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and others -- that marijuana reduces intraocular pressure (IOP) in patients suffering from glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the United States.

    Clinical and anecdotal evidence also points to the effectiveness of marijuana as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of a variety of spastic conditions such as multiple sclerosis, paraplegia, epilepsy, and quadriplegia. A number of animal studies and a handful of carefully controlled human studies have supported marijuana's ability to suppress convulsions. A summary of these findings was published by the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) Institute of Medicine in 1982. 48

    Between 1978 and 1996, legislatures in 34 states passed laws recognizing marijuana's therapeutic value. Twenty-five of these laws remain in effect today. Most recently, voters in two states -- Arizona and California -- overwhelmingly passed laws allowing for the legal use of marijuana under a physician's supervision. Unfortunately, all of these laws are limited in their ability to protect patients from criminal prosecution or provide medical marijuana to those who need it by federal prohibition. In addition, federal officials have threatened to sanction physicians who recommend or use marijuana in compliance with state laws. Clearly, patients who could benefit from marijuana's therapeutic value are being held hostage by a federal government that continues to treat the issue as if it were part of the "war on drugs" instead of a legitimate public health issue. Congress must act to correct this injustice. When compassion and justice are in conflict with current law, then the law must change.

    At NORML's urging, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), along with co-sponsors Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), introduced legislation in Congress on June 4, 1997, that would remove federal obstacles which currently interfere with an individual state's decision to permit the medicinal use of marijuana. H.R. 1782, the "Medical Use of Marijuana Act," allows physicians to legally recommend or prescribe marijuana to seriously ill patients where state law allows them to do so. In addition, it permits states to legally implement different systems of growing and distributing medical marijuana under state law.

    H.R. 1782 is not a mandate from Washington and would not require any state to change its current laws. It is a states' rights bill that acknowledges the will of the American people and would allow states to determine for themselves whether marijuana should be legal for medicinal use. It is a common-sense solution to a complex issue and would provide a great deal of relief from suffering for a large number of people. NORML implores Congress to support this compassionate proposal to protect the ten of thousands of Americans who currently use marijuana as a medicine and the millions who would benefit from its legal access. Many seriously ill patients find marijuana the most effective way to relieve their pain and suffering and federal marijuana prohibition must not, in good conscience, continue to deny them that medication.