The debate over the usage of medical marijuana in the United States has been intense and marked by an extreme and virulent debate between parties that disagree wildly on the issue. The United States government, in particular, is opposed to the legalization of the drug for the purpose of medicinal use. The Drug Enforcement Agency, an arm of the United States Department of Justice focuses on the fact that marijuana has several extremely negative physiological effects that make it seem to be an unlikely candidate for use as a medicinal substance:
The harmful consequences of smoking marijuana include, but are not limited to the following: premature cancer, addiction, coordination and perception impairment, a number of mental disorders including depression, hostility and increased aggressiveness, general apathy, memory loss, reproductive disabilities, and impairment to the immune system.
Say It Straight")
Indeed, it is difficult to note this impressive series of harmful effects that would seem to outweigh any potential benefits from the use of marijuana in medical settings, yet the dispute continues to rage emphatically. Why?
The reality is that for thousands and thousands of people who are afflicted with terrible diseases, such as AIDS and cancer that are so excruciatingly painful as to be debilitating, marijuana is the only drug that enables them to obtain a modicum of relief while still being able to function on a level that approaches their normal daily routine. Other drugs are so strong that they disable the people afflicted by these diseases. Moreover, more common painkilling drugs are actually more damaging to the average user and more likely to cause a serious addiction. Indeed, even the Washington Post in an editorial has argued that legalization is a valid avenue to pursue as regards medical treatment:
Medical use of marijuana cannot be said to lead inevitably to drug legalization or a pro-drug culture. Referendums can be haphazard, but voters are not the only group supporting medical marijuana. Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine concluded that marijuana-derived chemicals can alleviate cancer and AIDS symptoms; it added that these chemicals would be best delivered in a non-smoked form.
The Wrong Drug Battle")
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that marijuana can and already does serve a medical purpose for a large section of people that suffer from debilitating and very probably fatal diseases. What could possibly wrong with supplying them with another painkiller instead of more dangerous ones that are already available but don't work effectively? Indeed, medical marijuana, aside from being less addictive, also act as an appetite stimulant, which can be very important for sickly people with diseases that make it difficult for them to ingest food. Indeed, the debate has raged so fiercely that the city of Santa Cruz, California, is engaged in the process of suing the federal government for raiding a farm that grew marijuana that it then distributed to the sickly (Sanchez). Considering then the intense and obvious benefits that medical marijuana provides to its users, what could the government's interest in outlawing it possibly be?
It is important to remember the importance and central cruciality that the drug war has played in United States domestic policy over the last half century. Beginning with the popular use of drug by the so-called generation of "baby boomers" in the 1960s and 1970s, drug culture in the United States became both entrenched and increasingly problematic. The increased use of drugs has certainly created a whole series of problems within the United States; the most notably issue is that drug use tends to decrease our inhibitions as well as impair our sense of good judgment and reason, and, as a result people using drugs might be more inclined towards criminal behavior or else their lack of judgment may lead them to make bad decisions that in fact become criminal. Certain famous examples have been the recent campaigns against driving while using alcohol or other drugs, because operating a car while under the influence of these chemicals can lead to serious accidents. Moreover, drugs are expensive and when people become addicted to certain drugs, they may be motivated to turn to criminal activities in order to raise the necessary cash to feed their addiction. Lastly, organized crime has turned illegal drugs into a moneymaking industry and the United States is understandably concerned about this link between drugs and organized crime in America. Certainly, we have experienced extremely negative effects from the use of drugs in America, and certain drugs, such as crack or freebase, have been linked by some authorities to spikes in criminal activity in cities across the United States.
But what does the drug war have to do with medical marijuana per se, which certainly would fall outside of the ambit of any United States prohibition. Unfortunately, the two are related very, very intimately. Indeed, the stigma surrounding marijuana is so intense, that even the passage of a bill that only reduces penalties for possession of the substance by people who are seriously ill, such as the bill passes by Maryland in March of 2003, receives national attention (Montgomery and Whitlock). The issue is that marijuana, as the drug associated with the "hippie" culture of the 1960s, is seen as emblematic of the entire war on drug within the United States. Thus, the government's concern is that allowing the legitimized use of marijuana in the United States under any terms is essentially a victory for the drug user and a loss for the United States in the drug war. The idea is that simply by allowing it to be distributed to the sick in this country would legitimize its use in a recreational setting and be equivalent to saying that use of illicit drugs and contraband substances is effectively OK. Unfortunately, this policy is absurd and negatively affects thousands and thousands of people in the United States who are afflicted with painful and debilitating diseases. Indeed a survey of the people currently listed as plaintiffs in the Santa Cruz suit against the government demonstrates how ill the people being affected are:
This lawsuit's plaintiff patients are Corral, who has epilepsy; Eladio V. Acosta of Watsonville, undergoing chemotherapy for throat cancer; James Daniel Baehr of Santa Cruz, suffering pain from extensive, terminal cancer; Michael Cheslosky of Aptos, who has AIDS; Jennifer Lee Hentz of Palo Alto, undergoing chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer; Harold F. Margolin of Santa Cruz, who has cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the neck, and Dorothy Gibbs of Santa Cruz, who has post-polio syndrome. Gibbs, 93, is WAMM's oldest member.
Clearly, there can be another solution in which these very ill people can be helped and the government can still obtain the objectives it has in its war against drugs.
One of the most obvious solutions to this problem would be to employ a tactic, which is currently in use in Holland and which is being very seriously considered by the Canadian government at this very moment in time. This solution would be to simply sell marijuana at pharmacies in the United States, requiring a doctor's approval and a prescription to receive medical marijuana. The reason for this is that currently in Canada, while the seriously ill are allowed to posses marijuana, there are no legitimate methods for them to obtain the drug, which means that they are required to turn to illegal sources for their drugs, which induces all sorts of concern about their safety and about the safety of the drug that they are using. A Canadian judge recently noticed the inhumanity of this process:
Laws which put seriously ill, vulnerable people in a position where they have to deal with the criminal underworld to obtain medicine they have been authorized to take violate the constitutional right to security of the person...
Indeed, it would be easiest if this method were employed so that truly sick people might not have to go through these absurd methods simply to obtain the medicine that they require.
Certainly this solution would work best in terms of providing those who need the medicine the best access to it, but it might foreseeably create other problems as well. Certainly, one might be concerned that doctors could prescribe marijuana to patients that did not need it for medical purposes, essentially legitimizing the use of illegal drugs in America. Notably, however, these doctors would be subject to federal regulations that would punish them severely for ignoring the regulations against prescribing medication to those not in need and doing so would result in the loss of their license and other stiffer penalties. In all fairness, however, we could quite easily establish more stringent standards for users of medical marijuana, perhaps even requiring them to register with some national board that would adjudicate the validity of such claims. Also, it might be worthwhile to allow drug companies to develop smokeless forms of the drug that might not be as quickly associated with drug culture, thus easing the government's concerns. Such drugs and various other ones…