Consider the common cold. When you feel really rotten and reach for something to help you feel better, what is it that makes you choose a particular medicine? Say you ache all over, your head is stuffed up, and you have a fever, a cough and a sore throat. You’re presented with some options – a traditional Chinese extract made from astragalus root, a Mexican tea made from garlic, lime peel and honey, or Robitussin Multi-Symptom Cold Formula – which would you choose? Why? What is it that motivates you to pick one remedy over another? Our beliefs and experiences undoubtedly play a role in shaping our view of a medicine as legitimate. But the important question is how those ideas of legitimacy benefit us…or not.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the crackdown by federal authorities in California on medical marijuana dispensaries. An article in the N.Y. Times last Sunday described exactly what the feds are up to: “The Treasury Department has forced banks to close accounts of medical marijuana businesses operating legally under state law. The Internal Revenue Service has required dispensary owners to pay punitive taxes required of no other businesses. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently ruled that state-sanctioned medical marijuana patients cannot purchase firearms.
United States attorneys have also sent letters to local officials…stressing their authority to prosecute all marijuana offenses. Prosecutors have threatened to seize the property of landlords and put them behind bars for renting to marijuana dispensaries. The United States attorney in San Diego, Laura E. Duffy, has promised to start targeting media outlets that run dispensaries’ ads.”
When Obama ran for president in 2008, he defended the use of cannabis as medicine and said he wouldn’t use the Justice Department to override state laws concerning it. But then he re-nominated a Bush appointee, Michele Leonhart, as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, so it’s no surprise that Obama’s policy on cannabis is the same as Bush’s, despite his campaign rhetoric. Leonhart has retained the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
When you think of cannabis, or more specifically, one of its street names: marijuana, pot, grass, weed – what comes to mind? Hippies? Mexican drug cartels? The kooky California counter-culture? Though the history of cannabis as a medicine goes back thousands of years, it was maligned as the vice of dark-skinned foreigners, destined to corrupt all that is fair and white and good in 1920’s America. In the 60’s it became associated with anti-establishment rebellion, violence and mayhem. Maybe you’re old enough to remember Cheech and Chong’s pot humor in the 70’s. I still have the Big Bambu album somewhere, complete with the giant rolling paper that came with it. Really, cannabis can’t be taken seriously as a medicine! Can it?
In March of 2009 President Obama attended a televised online town hall. Of the thousands of questions that were received in advance, the topic of whether the legalization of cannabis would improve the economy ranked fairly high. Obama didn’t take the subject seriously and said laughingly, “I don’t know what that says about the online audience. But no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.” No wonder cannabis has an image problem. Yet in 2004 at an event at Northwestern University then Illinois politician Obama told the crowd, “I think that the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.” Nothing has changed much since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 – cannabis is still the center of a game of political football.
I don’t know where Michele Leonhart gets her information, but there have been hundreds of studies conducted on the medicinal uses of cannabis. It has been documented as effective for the treatment of nausea, vomiting, premenstrual syndrome, unintentional weight loss, insomnia, and lack of appetite. It’s used to treat spasticity, neurogenic pain, movement disorders, asthma and glaucoma. It has been found to relieve certain symptoms of multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries. It may also prove useful in treating (are you ready?) inflammatory bowel disease, migraines, fibromyalgia, alcohol abuse, collagen-induced arthritis, atherosclerosis, bipolar disorder, colorectal cancer, depression, dystonia, epilepsy, digestive diseases, gliomas, hepatitis C, Huntington’s disease, leukemia, skin tumors, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Parkinson’s Disease, pruritus, post-traumatic stress disorder, psoriasis, sickle-cell disease and sleep apnea. And yes, controversies remain. Should it be smoked or synthesized into pill form? What are the side effects and benefits of both? How should growing of the plant be regulated? How can the final product be standardized? Should it be? No doubt such questions arose in the long journey between the poppy fields and the manufacturing of morphine and Vicodin. But today opioids are accepted as serious medicine, approved by the FDA, prescribed by MD’s and dispensed by pharmacists in neat, labeled, tamper-proof plastic bottles. Where cannabis is concerned, we got stuck on the road someplace between William Randolph Hearst and the last doobie you smoked underneath the high school bleachers. And not only can cannabis assist in the treatment of pain and disease, it can do it without the toxic effects of many of the medicines we consider “legitimate”. According to a 1988 statement by the U.S. Department of Justice, “There is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality. In practical terms, marijuana cannot induce a lethal response as a result of drug-related toxicity.”
If the ability of cannabis to ease pain and suffering hasn’t convinced us of the need to decriminalize its use, its potential as an economic powerhouse should. The illegal import of drugs into the United States is a multi-billion dollar a year industry with all of the profit going to criminal organizations. If cannabis were legalized and regulated the huge expenditure on the drug war and black market sales could be turned to far more practical applications. It’s interesting to note that economist Milton Friedman is a staunch supporter of the legalization of cannabis. He joined with 500 other economists in signing “An Open Letter to the President, Congress, Governors, and State Legislatures” which states that the legalization of cannabis “would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if [it] were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually.”
$14 billion ain’t hay. That doesn’t even include the proceeds of the legalization of agricultural hemp and its spinoff industries. Profits there, according to Dr. Dale Gieringer, author and state coordinator of the California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), are anywhere from an additional $6-10 billion annually. And don’t forget jobs. In an era of 9% unemployment our consumer-driven economy would have a huge boost from the thousands of jobs that would be created in the agricultural, medical and manufacturing fields. I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of talk these days that America is broke and that we just can’t afford to fund public education, infrastructure repair, health care, public transportation or social services and that we must cut back on the number of public sector workers like cops, nurses, firemen and teachers. Considering the decisions we make, the continued criminalization of cannabis among them, its little wonder our national finances are in a mess. I was more clear-headed than this back in the days when I smoked…and inhaled.