Dr. Kwame Nantambu

Debate over Legalisation of Marijuana in USA
Posted: March 05, 2002
An analysis by
Dr. Kwame Nantambu

For nearly sixty-four years, when the Marijuana Tax Act was first passed in Congress in 1937, the battle over its medicinal purpose has sparked quite a controversy.

Millions of Americans have claimed that marijuana alleviates the pain associated with certain illnesses. At the same time, many advocates of its legalisation state that it serves no positive purpose and should remain illegal.

It is evident that the drug has provided relief to millions of Americans who suffer from painful illnesses. Not only is it therapeutic in the treatment of a number of serious ailments, but it is also less toxic and costly than other drugs for which it may be substituted. For this reason, marijuana should be medically available to people in cases where no other drug provides the required relief.

Marijuana's use as a medicine dates back to the 28th century B.C., when Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung prescribed it. He used the drug to treat beri-beri, (a disease affecting the nervous and digestive systems), constipation, gout, malaria and rheumatism. A famous book called The Sustra was compiled sometime before 1000B.C. and Associated the use of marijuana with the people of India.

Aside from its religious use, the drug was prescribed to treat dysentery, sunstroke, indigestion, reduced appetite and speech impediments. The use of marijuana quickly spread to other countries where it was used to cleanse the mind and body.

After the return of Napoleon's army from Egypt after 1798 cannabis became accepted by Western practitioners. Napoleon's scientific professionals noted an interest in the drug's pain relieving and sedative effects.

Wide attention was drawn to the drug especially after his rule, when the works of physicians such as O'Shaughnessy, Aubert-Roche, and Moreau de Tours were revealed The United States became familiar with the drug medicinal value in 1860 when the committee on Cannabis Indica of the Ohio State Medical Society Reported on its therapeutic purpose.

In the years following, cannabis began to loose its reputation as a medical advantage and developed the image of being an intoxicant. The public's strong reaction led to the federal anti-marijuana law passed in 1937. Between the years of 1978 and 1996, despite the federal government's prohibition of marijuana, 36 states have passed regislation allowing research into the drug's medicinal purpose.

Meanwhile, only a few patients have legally been able to obtain the drug for medicinal purposes. Marijuana is placed in the category as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The characteristics for a drug in this category are that it has a high potential for abuse, lacks an accepted medical use, and is unsafe for use under medical supervision.

In 1988, Francis L. Young, the Drug Enforcement Agency's chief administrative law judge, stated that in it's natural form, marijuana is "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. The provisions of the Controlled Substances Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from schedule I to Schedule II". Schedule II would reveal that it does have medical benefits and can be openly used for this reason.

However, Judge Young's command was rejected by the DEA and marijuana still remains a Schedule I drug. The demand for the drug still continues to grow and programmes have been established to make the drug available to those who need it.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1978 instituted the Compassionate Investigative Drug programme, which allowed people to apply for receipt to use the drug. However, in June 1991, the programme was suspended for the reason that it undercut the Bush administration's opposition to the use of illegal drugs. Officially, the Compassionate IND programme was closed in 1992 after it was bombarded with applications from AIDS patients requesting a prescription for marijuana. Also, the Cannabis Buyer's Club was established in San Francisco. In 1991, it began selling marijuana to critically ill people but was shut down after a police raid in 1996.

As the ongoing battle continues, more and more medical research becomes available to support the beneficial use of marijuana. However, the lack of medical research is what the DEA claims is the reason for the hesitation in rescheduling of the drug. The former DEA's administrator states:
"those who insist that marijuana has medical uses would serve society better by promoting or sponsoring more legitimate research".

Cancer is one of the most devastating and deadly diseases in our time and chemotherapy is the best known combat against it. Some of the most commonly used drugs in chemotherapy are cisplatin, doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide. Despite their enormous toxicity, side effects of these drugs may include:
deafness, kidney failure, uncontrolled bleeding and bruising, suppression of the immune system, destruction of the heart muscle tissue, hair loss, profound nausea and vomiting, and even secondary types of cancer.

After a chemotherapy session, the nausea and vomiting can last for hours or day. The body eventually begins to waste away from lack of caloric intake due to the great loss of appetite. Antiemetic is a group of drugs established to help reduce nausea and allow a person to eat. Through a period of hours, a patient is injected with the drug in a tiny drip placed in his/her vein.

The session lasts for a number of hours and the patient must remain in the hospital bed. At the same time, the cost per treatment amounts to hundreds of dollars. The active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol also known as THC. Since 1985, doctors have been able to prescribe this under the brand name of Marinol. However, this pill has failed to provide the same relief as smoked marijuana does. First, a person who is vomiting profusely is going to have a hard time keeping a pill down. As one chemotherapy patient stated: "It is hard for a pill to take effect when you puke it up every time you try to swallow it."

Secondly, only one of the more than 40 active cannabinoids in natural marijuana is in Marinol. Those who have been prescribed Marinol say that after waiting up to hours for it to take effect, it completely debilitates them physically and elicits disturbing psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia and anxiety. The use of smoked marijuana is obviously crucial to specific people. There is no reason why patients should be denied to legally use any drug that relieves them from serious pain.

In 1988, Francis L. Young, the DEA's chief administrative law judge stated: "It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance." The fact of the matter is that with so much proof that marijuana is medically effective, why are so many lawmakers in denial that it will have a positive impact in the medical field?

Some think that the legalisation of its medicinal effectiveness is a gateway leading to recreational purposes as well. When commenting on medical marijuana, the former Clinton administration's drug policy chief, Barry McCaffrey, stated: "I think it's nonsense. This is mostly a "Cheech and Chong" show for the quasi-legislation of marijuana."

However, this article does not deal with the people who want to legalise marijuana for all purposes, that is a whole other issue. In this case, the focus is on the patient's right to obtain marijuana as well as the doctor's right to prescribe it. People should not be punished for using a drug that helps alleviate their pain. The US government is wasting time and money in ridiculous lawsuits such as Conant vs. McCaffrey in 1977.

The case was filed by physicians and seriously ill patients against Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey. He, along with other top federal officials, were threatened to suspend physicians licenses' or possibly prosecute them criminally for recommending marijuana to their patients. In 2000, the U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that the federal government could not penalise doctors by revoking their licenses to prescribe medication if they would recommend marijuana to patients. It is clear that doctors are prescribing it and patients are demanding it. People are going to continue to do what they feel is necessary to soothe away pain.

In 1977, the Lindesmith Center, a Drug Policy Foundation, conducted a study showing that 60% of Americans vote in favour of allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes and don't believe the government should penalise those who do so.

If the US government would actually look into the research that is done, it could make a more sound judgment on the issue. However, it is afraid that making marijuana legal for medical purposes would relay a bad message to the public. James Mason, a doctor and director of the Public Health Services states: "If it's perceived that the Public Health Service is going around giving marijuana to folks, there would be perception that this stuff can't be so bad."

Bill Shanafelt, an officer in the Portage County Ohio Drug Task Force has another view about why the government is hesitant to legalise medical marijuana. He states: "I think it's simply politics. No one wants to publicly admit they are for the legalisation of marijuana. The anti-marijuana people are very strong and politicians need their support. They do not care about the public image, just their own support." What people don't realise is that there are specific cases in which marijuana is the only hope people have.

It has changed many lives and allowed people to focus on other aspects of life rather than the pain they are in. Paralyzed by a shooting accident in 1989, Chris Woiderski incorporated smoking marijuana into his daily routine and discovered a whole new world. Since the accident when he was paralyzed from the chest down, Woiderski suffered from severe muscle spasms. To control them, he was placed on Valium, Baclofen, and Darvon, which are three highly effective painkillers. Within 10 months of the accident, he was on 480 prescriptive pills per month as well as engaged in therapy. The side effects of the drugs became intolerable and the therapy was providing minimal relief. He became incapacitated because he was always in a drugged state. Not only that, but he also suffered weight loss, insomnia and severe headaches.

While undergoing treatment at a hospital in Tampa, Florida, other severely paralyzed patients told Woiderski that he should try marijuana. He tried it and discovered that half a joint in the morning controlled his spasms for about 6 hours. Another half a joint in the afternoon controlled them for the remainder of the day, then a whole joint before bed. Since then, Woiderski has discontinued using all prescriptive medicine, returned to college and helped organize a group called Paralyzed Americans for Legal Marijuana. Chris Woiderski is not a criminal for using marijuana nor is anything he is doing morally wrong. He is simply trying to cope with the unfortunate situation he has been placed in and move on with his life.

Marijuana is a medicine and like all medicines, it is used to and can help people. There are many people who are using costly, dangerous drugs to alleviate their pain due to the fear of being prosecuted for using marijuana. No one who has enough suffering to go through should have to deal with the government invading his or her privacy. Brownie" Mary Rathburn, a 70-year-old from San Francisco, California, was arrested in July 1992 when she was caught folding two pounds of marijuana into her brownie mix for free distribution to AIDS patients. She was faced with a 5-year sentence on felony charges. Fortunately, the case was dismissed when the local District Attorney refused to prosecute her.

Another case is that of Sharon Place who was arrested in May 1990 for growing 64 plants for free distribution to AIDS patients. She was convicted of manufacture and possession of marijuana, facing 18 months in prison. However, she was given two years probation and 80 hours of community service.

Medical research claiming the positive aspect of marijuana is available, yet the government claims that there is just not enough. What else can people say to persuade the politicians that this is a form of medication and it is an important part of many people's lives?

There is clear evidence that marijuana has been used to relieve pain in sufferers of many diseases. Patients with glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and anorexia have experienced the positive remarkable effects of the drug. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to legalise marijuana so that they can be non-suffering, law-abiding citizens whose money supports respectable causes, rather than the illegal market created by prohibition of marijuana.

The government needs to concentrate on whom the drug is going to help rather than who is going to abuse it. People who want marijuana can get it now, thus changing a low to make it easier for those who need it medically is not going to make a difference to the others. Marijuana is nothing compared to other drugs that are used as a substitute pain reliever.

People frequently become addicted to pain killers and can overdose on them as well. On the other hand, there is no known overdose of marijuana. The problem lies in the fear that marijuana will become a widely accepted drug and lead to the abuse of others.

However, a study in 1999 debunked the so-called "Gateway Theory" of marijuana. The report was issued by the Institute of Medicine entitled, "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Scientific Base." It concluded that there is no "evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are casually linked to the subsequent use of other illicit drugs."

Denying someone of a drug that provides relief from pain is not only cruel and unusual punishment but it is also morally wrong. Even the biggest opponents of marijuana legalisation would admit that if placed in a similar situation, they too would want the drug that made them feel the best with the least side effects. It is very easy for people to be against something with whose benefits they are not personally familiar.

Marijuana is a medicine; it is proven and supported by millions of users around the world. Those that find great relief will continue to use it until the law is changed. Unfortunately, that might never happen and instead of being patients dealing with pain, these people are labeled as lawbreakers and drug addicts. "Power to the People".

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Nantambu is an Associate Professor, Dept. of Pan-African Studies, Kent State University, U.S.A.

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