More MS news articles for May 1999

Up in Smoke

The Sorry Politics of Medical Marijuana

By Nicholas Regush

Archaic tax laws and the federal drug enforcement establishment have forced doctors and patients to break the law to use marijuana for pain relief.

Have you ever watched someone who is ill, someone you love, cry and scream with pain for days, weeks, months, even years?

Your first reaction is to touch or hold that person and hope that you can magically wish the pain away. But your more practical impulse is to ensure that all medical efforts have been exhausted to find a medicine that will neutralize or at least dull the pain.

Unfortunately for millions of Americans who live with the pain and numerous discomforts of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and other chronic ailments, the road to relief is often blockaded by small-minded government bureaucrats, cowardly doctors and empire builders in the so-called Justice Department.

I am referring to the irresponsible, indefensible and unforgivable tactics used to prevent people in severe pain from using marijuana as a medicine. Above all else, the arguments against medical marijuana are essentially efforts to protect the turf of the federal drug-enforcement Establishment.

Unholy War

The federal government, especially under the staunch leadership of “good boy” Bill Clinton (who says he never actually inhaled), continues a Jihad against drugs that grinds through everything in its path and is blind to human medical needs.

This week, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine released its long-awaited report on the subject. Big deal. A waste of taxpayers’ money and everybody’s time. Yes, public opinion is divided on this issue. Yes, there is some evidence that medical marijuana can be helpful. Yes, there is absolutely no evidence that legalizing medical marijuana will lead to reefer madness.

Sure, let’s do more research. And let’s find a better way to deliver marijuana into the body so we won’t have to smoke the stuff and inhale all those toxic chemicals. But meanwhile, until we sort out all these things, maybe we should allow some people a few puffs under careful medical supervision.

We needed this elite scientific panel to remind us of what has been painfully obvious and reported and editorialized countless times in the medical literature over the years?

Let’s get serious. We are dealing with a political issue. I liken it to an infestation, one that has festered like a slow-growing parasite and taken over the life of the body politic.

Revenuers’ Revenge

It all goes back to the Harrison Tax Act of 1914, which required payment of a graduated occupational tax by all persons who imported, produced, compounded, sold, dealt in, dispersed or gave away narcotic drugs.

This act didn’t mention addicts or addiction. At the time, opium and its derivatives were widely available, even in patent medicines (like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup) and soft drinks.

Although the Harrison Act neither made addiction illegal nor directed doctors one way or the other about prescribing drugs for addicts, the Supreme Court decided in 1915 that possession of “smuggled” drugs by an addict was a violation of the act. This forced addicts to go to doctors - the major legal source of drugs left to them. After the arrest of a physician who gave four narcotic tablets to a patient, doctors, fearing prosecution, began abandoning addicts.

From this point, a succession of imaginative interpretations of the Harrison Act combined with the steady rise in clout of a small Treasury Department unit (later named the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) to lead inexorably to an all-out war on drugs, including marijuana.
Criminalization Blows

Today, the huge federal bureaucracy to control drug use has become a fire-breathing monster.

And it’s not about to change its colors quickly. There will never be enough medical evidence to satisfy people who are convinced that the only way to deal with narcotics use is to dump massive numbers of people in jail and ban the drugs outright for fear they’ll contaminate all children.

Early this century, this nation could have chosen a more enlightened way of dealing with narcotic use. It chose criminalization, rather than a more medically-minded approach for those who needed and wanted it. Well, this Holy War has been a total mess and dismal failure. The law- and-order crowd blew it then and is blowing it now.

The good news, I suppose, is that voters in several states have put the medical marijuana issue on the ballot. California passed a referendum to permit its use.

What’s really needed now is a change in federal law, which supersedes state law on narcotics.

As for those peculiar politicians who remain married to human suffering at any cost, one recourse is to give them a swift and painful boot out of office.

Nicholas Regush produces medical features for ABCNEWS. In his weekly column, published Wednesdays, he looks at medical trouble spots, heralds innovative achievements and analyzes health trends that may greatly influence our lives.

His latest book is The Breaking Point: Understanding Your Potential For Violence.