The Science and Politics of Medical Cannabis

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marijuana bill in 2007, Ray Warren,
director of state policies for the Marijuana
Policy Project (MPP) adamantly stated
that “We are not going to abandon
the patients, doctors and nurses who
have worked so hard to protect the sick
and suffering…Science, compassion
and simple common sense say this is the right thing to do.
We’ll be back.”
And back they are with Senate Bill 2865 and House Bill
5938! The Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Pilot
Program Act was introduced by Senator John J. Cullerton
(D-Chicago) and Representative Angelo Saviano (R-River
Grove) in February 2008. The Senate bill will be voted on
after the November national election. For now, however,
HB5938 sits in the Rules Committee.
The proposed legislation “provides that when a person
has been diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating
medical condition, the person and the person’s primary
caregiver may be issued a registry identification card by the
Department of Public Health that permits the person or the
person’s primary caregiver to legally possess no more than
12 cannabis plants and 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis.”
Qualifying conditions consist of the following: cancer,
glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease,
Crohn’s disease, agitation of Alzheimer’s disease, and nail
patella. Doctors may also recommend medical cannabis for
cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, epilepsy, and multiple
sclerosis (See, for full text).
The 33-page-long document contains every conceivable
safeguard against potential abuse. Specifically, it
includes a sunset clause of three years, during which a
maximum of 1200 patients can take advantage of the
program. Several Illinois organizations have been
involved in promoting the legalization of medical
cannabis, through campaigns targeting state and federal
legislators. These include the Illinois Compassion Action
Network (ICAN), Illinois chapters of Students for a Sensible
Drug Policy (SSDP), Illinois chapter of National
Organization for Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML),
and Illinois Drug Education and Legislative Reform
If the bill becomes law, Illinois would be the 13th
state to allow the use of medical cannabis. Although this
bill has a limited scope and seems experimental, it
should be actively supported as the first positive step
towards eventually covering over 200,000 potential
beneficiaries. According to Dan Linn, the executive
director of Illinois NORML, SB2865 had to be written
more conservatively than last year’s SB 650, if it is to
pass the State Senate.
The bill, of course, does not protect individuals from
being prosecuted by the Federal government. Data show
that such arrests constitute 10% of the total arrests for possession
of marijuana. Hopefully, as more states pass legislation
in favor of legalization, Washington will begin to
feel greater pressure to reverse its draconian policies.
In fact, House bill (HR 5842), the “Medical Marijuana
Patient Protection Act,” which is currently under consideration,
seeks to enact legal protections for authorized medical
marijuana patients. It will help to ensure that medical
marijuana patients in states where medical cannabis legislation
has been approved will no longer have to fear arrest
or prosecution from federal law enforcement agencies.
Advocates in Illinois are already asking our congressional
representatives to support the federal bill.
Judges for quite some time have been ruling in favor
of the benefit of cannabis. In 1988, in a non-binding
opinion, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Administrative
Judge Francis Young ruled that “Marijuana, in its
natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active
substances known to man. By any measure of rational
analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised
routine of medical care.” In February 2008, DEA’s Judge
Mary Ellen Bittner argued that lifting the government
monopoly over distribution of cannabis to scientists and
allowing researchers to grow a variety of high quality
cannabis is in the “Public Interest.” She added that
researchers must have a sufficient amount of high quality
cannabis to be able to conduct clinical studies and also to
develop cannabis in different forms (such as a vaporized
spray) for administrating the safest and most effective
medication to patients.
In addition to judges, many reputable national organizations
of physicians, nurses, scientists, Attorney Generals,
several Churches, New England Journal of Medicine,
and Lancet advocate for the legalization of medical
cannabis, citing available data and scientific evidence. The
Dutch Ministry of Justice estimates that only 0.16% of
cannabis users are heroin users. Also, data provided by
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
show that the vast majority of people who try
cannabis do not go on to use hard drugs. In 1999, a study
completed by the Institute of Medicine, at the request of
the White House, concluded that cannabis was not highly
addictive, was not a gateway drug, and had therapeutic
value. It added that physicians should be able to conduct
studies on patients who could potentially benefit from
cannabis, as well as conduct research on alternative delivery
systems. In fact, new research in biology and physiology
has shown that the body itself produces cannabis-like
substances (endocannabinoids) which homeostatically
regulate the working of its various organs. This natural
affinity between human body and cannabinoids suggests
that further research might find even more therapeutic
uses for the cannabis plant than already recognized.
So, why are the politicians still adamant about legalizing
medical cannabis? A look at the history of criminalization
of cannabis provides clues into the manner in
which political interests have so far trumped scientific
evidence. Until the late 1930’s, cannabis was commonly
used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments. It was also
used among blacks in the South and Mexicans in the
Southwest. Hence, cannabis became a convenient target
for The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs which
after the end of Prohibition was in danger of being dissolved.
Authorities managed to erase cannabis as medicine
from folk memory, by replacing the use of its scientific
name with marijuana, “a dangerous drug used to
contaminate the mind of the white youth and subvert the
American culture.”
As part of his Machiavellian politics to crush the antiwar
and civil rights movements, Richard Nixon created
the DEA and pushed the Controlled Substance Act of
1970 through the Congress. The Act placed marijuana
in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Schedule
which consisted of highly addictive and dangerous
drugs which have no accepted medical use. The goal
was to intimidate the activists and create a rift in the
opposition. Despite several legal challenges, marijuana
remains in the same category along with LSD, heroin,
and crack cocaine!
Over the years, the majority of legislators have ignored
the power of scientific evidence and the will of the people,
supporting instead a fear-based politics predicated on
racism, class inequalities, and maligning dissent. Fortunately
today, two-thirds of Americans believe that the use
of medical cannabis should be legalized. This is so
because most people know someone who has suffered
needlessly from a disease or the side effects of a treatment
which could have been potentially relieved with the use
of medical cannabis. With this in mind, advocates for
medical cannabis insist that it is time to mobilize, educate,
and let the voices of reason be heard in Springfield
and Washington.
(See Shaleen Aghi’s article in November 2007 issue of the
Public i for background and previous legislative efforts.)

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