Doctors should be allowed to prescribe cannabis

When a patient is ill, doctors should be able to prescribe the best treatment.

Sometimes that medicine is cannabis.

Because of the federal Controlled Substance Act, marijuana — even medical marijuana — is illegal. But a growing number of states and the District of Columbia have had the courage and foresight to legalize its medical use. Eric Holder, the current United States attorney general, has said that it isn’t a priority to prosecute patients or their caregivers who are following state laws on medical marijuana.

Change at the federal level has been a long time coming.

In 1972, when Richard Nixon was president, he commissioned a report that included a chronicling of marijuana’s uses through history — in China, India, Egypt, and in America from the mid-19th Century to the 1970s.

“In large measure,” the report said, “the marihuana issue is a child of the sixties, the visual and somewhat pungent symbol of dramatic changes which have permanently affected our nation in the last decade....We would de-emphasize marihuana as a problem.”

Over 40 years later, it is time to let go of the prejudices some may hold against a plant that came to symbolize dramatic changes. The vast majority of Americans — a 2010 ABC News poll put the number at 81 percent — believe that medical marijuana should be legal in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration, which determines what drugs will be available for public use, has gone on the record about its benefits. The FDA’s Robert Meyer in 2004 addressed a congressional subcommittee on the “potential merits of cannabinoids for medical use.”

“Despite its status as an unapproved new drug, there has been considerable interest in its use for the treatment of a number of conditions, including glaucoma, AIDS wasting, neuropathic pain, treatment of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea,” Meyer said of marijuana.

We last wrote about the issue four years ago when Tyler Cooper, then a Voorheesville student, recalled his uncle’s drawn-out and fatal battle with cancer. Nearing his third year of remission, his cancer returned — first to his heart, then spreading to his lung. Since the growths couldn’t be surgically removed, he had to undergo intense chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

The severe nausea and lack of appetite that followed the treatments were painful and made it hard for him to maintain his weight. He began using marijuana to help settle his stomach to allow him to get some nutrition. His doctors were very aware of his use, Donna Cooper, Tyler’s mother, told us, and their attitude was, “Keep up the good work. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

She described the heartache of having to watch him break the law to medicate himself.

Many of us have friends or relatives who have been in similar circumstances.

Why should they suffer needlessly or be forced to break the law? And why shouldn’t they be able to buy the drug safely from a pharmacy rather than risking impurities from buying it on the street?

The federal Controlled Substance Act classifies cannabis in the strictest category, Schedule I, along with substances like LSD and heroin.

Research has been hampered by the same law, making it difficult to get medical marijuana for trials.

An article in The Open Neurology Journal, “Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke,” notes increasing anecdotal and clinical study reports of benefits from cannabis along with advances in understanding of the endocannabinoid signaling system upon which cannabis acts.

The researchers map out a detailed “decision tree” that physicians can use when considering recommending medicinal cannabis to a patient. They conclude, “Evidence is accumulating that cannabinoids may be useful medicine for certain indications. Control of nausea and vomiting and promotion of weight gain in chronic inanition are already licensed uses of oral THC...Recent research indicates that cannabis may also be effective in the treatment of painful peripheral neuropathy and muscle spasticity from conditions such as multiple sclerosis...”

The researchers call for more trials to better understand best uses and state that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug is not tenable. “It is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value or that information on safety is lacking,” they write.

The researchers also state, “The continuing conflict between scientific evidence and political ideology will hopefully be reconciled in a judicious manner.”

New York politicians have a chance to reconcile that right now. Last week, the Assembly passed the Compassionate Care Act. The vote was 91 to 34. This is the fifth time that the vast majority of assembly members have seen the wisdom of allowing doctors to choose the best treatment for their patients.

However, in the last seven years, as the Assembly has passed the measure, the Senate leaders have not even allowed it to the floor for a vote. Nor has Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced support for the act.

This is despite the views of the vast majority of New Yorkers. A poll last month by Quinnipiac University showed that 80 percent of New York voters favor legal access to medical marijuana.

New York State must join the ranks of the enlightened and allow its citizens when they are ailing legal access to a useful drug. Why should another person have to break the law to ease suffering?

Scientific evidence must trump political posturing. And so must meeting very real human needs.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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