Medicinal pot, Yes. Legal pot, bad idea

Wafting around California these days is a lot of rhetoric about legalizing marijuana, a proposition (#19) that will be on the ballot in November. Californians being Californians — I’m one; I know — and pot being pot, there is no shortage of heated opinion. Here is one more.

Countless Americans suffer from chronic or short-term conditions which could be relieved by marijuana. To deny them such relief simply makes no sense at all. The sooner everyone wakes up to the logic of marijuana as comfort care, and it becomes universally legal and available, the better.

Legalizing the weed for recreational delight, though — essentially making it available to all comers — makes very little sense at all. It’s an addictive substance, folks. It messes with your mind. All we need is a whole new population of messed-up folks to add to the messes we already have.

This is just one addict’s opinion. But if one addict’s opinion is only anecdotal, some others, below, are worthy of serious consideration. They were offered by the California Society of Addiction Medicine in an op ed piece by the Society’s president, Dr. Timmen Cermak, in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 22. The Society is taking no position on Prop. 19, Cermak explains, “but we wish Californians would look at the research before they make up their minds on how to vote.” This space applauds that suggestion.

The Society of Addiction Medicine is made up of “the doctors who specialize in the treatment of drug abuse; we work every day with people addicted to drugs, including alcohol,” Cermak writes. “We are a diverse group of doctors committed to combining science and compassion to treat our patients, support their families and educate public policy makers.”

Since very few of the Society of Addiction Medicine’s 400 physician members believe prison deters substance abuse, legalizing marijuana would have that small, back-handed benefit. “Most (of us) believe addiction can be remedied more effectively by the universal availability of treatment,” Cermak writes. “When, according to the FBI, nearly half – 750,000 – of all drug arrests in 2008 in the United States were for marijuana possession, not sales or trafficking, we risk inflicting more harm on society than benefit. Prop. 19 does offer a way out of these ineffective drug policies.”

But other research should raise alarm bells. Cermak’s essay is excerpted below, with a few points worth pondering bold-faced:

“Two-thirds of our members believe legalizing marijuana would increase addiction and increase marijuana’s availability to adolescents and children. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that Prop. 19 would produce a 58 percent increase in annual marijuana consumption in California, raising the number of individuals meeting clinical criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence by 305,000, to a total of 830,000.

“The question of legalizing marijuana creates a conflict between protecting civil liberties and promoting public health… between current de facto legalization in cannabis clubs and revenue-generating retail marijuana sales… The society wants to make sure voters understand three basic facts about how marijuana affects the brain:

“– The brain has a natural cannabinoid system that regulates human physiology. The flood of cannabinoids in marijuana smoke alters the brain’s delicate balance by mimicking its chemistry, producing a characteristic “high” along with a host of potential side effects.

“– Marijuana is addicting to 9 percent of people who begin smoking at 18 years or older. Withdrawal symptoms – irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances – often contribute to relapse.

“– Because adolescent brains are still developing, marijuana use before 18 results in higher rates of addiction – up to 17 percent within two years – and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.

“Marijuana is a mood-altering drug that causes dependency when used frequently in high doses, especially in children and adolescents. It’s important that prevention measures focus on discouraging young people from using marijuana.

“Prop. 19 erroneously states that marijuana “is not physically addictive.” This myth has been scientifically proven to be untrue. Prop. 19 asks Californians to officially accept this myth. Public health policy already permits some addictive substances to be legal – for instance, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But good policy can never be made on a foundation of ignorance. Multiple lines of scientific evidence all prove that chronic marijuana use causes addiction in a significant minority of people. No one should deny this scientific evidence.”

So we could use the tax revenues from legalized pot. But it may surely be worth thinking twice about what the concurrent costs will be, in illness and crime and human lives.

Should Catholic Bishops Determine U.S.Health Policy?

Why do these two sentences, in a report by New York Times health writers Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn which appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, send chills down my spine?

Nelson (Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops , said Thursday that they could not accept Casey’s (Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa) initial proposal, in part because they saw money from the government and premiums as fungible.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the bishops’ anti-abortion committee said, ‘We continue to oppose, and urge others to oppose, the Senate bill unless and until this fundamental failure is remedied.’

A more recent report on NYTimes.com says Nelson will now support the bill, since it includes tighter restrictions on abortion coverage. I assume if it’s okay with Senator Nelson it’s okay with USCCB.

In the mid-1970s I had a friend I will call Sara, a 19-year-old single mom working hard to raise an infant daughter, who found herself pregnant with a probably defective potential baby. She saw no way to care for her existing child without a job — the pregnancy would cost her her job — let alone care for an unplanned and unwanted new child with special needs. Her church gave her no choice. She managed to have an abortion in fairly sterile circumstances, but because she was part of a small Catholic congregation she remained terrified for years afterward that she would be found out and condemned to hell. I remember thinking how sad it was that she could not seek comfort and support from her close-knit faith community.

I am fine with Sara’s beliefs and honor her for that struggle. I am not fine with having the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops determine health policy for all of us. And I wonder how many Saras will be denied proper care because the USCCB believes that some embryonic cells are more important than the right of a woman to control her own body. It remains to be seen if the bill passes, and what sliver of abortion coverage survives, but the tragedies of back-alley abortions, which I know from personal experiences and which the bishops cannot even begin to fathom, are quite likely to return.

What happened to that quaint notion of separation of church and state?

How public is your option?

Not very, in all probability.

According to current reports, only those whose coverage exceeds 12.5 percent of their income, only the smallest businesses, or those who aren’t covered by Medicare or VA programs… a very few onlies will have access to the public option. Still, the public option is less important than the reform bill itself. We may have reached the point at which the perfect is indeed the enemy of the good.

Early on in this process my friend Catherine Dodd, whose extensive health policy credentials include stints on Nancy Pelosi’s staff and as a Regional Director for the Department of Health and Human Services, advised an audience inundated with numbers and percentages and data to remember just one figure: “Nineteen point seven,” she said. It has taken an average of 19.7 years after one health reform measure failed to raise the issue again.

Many of us do not have another 19.7 years to wait for the next battle.

Insuring the Uninsured: A No-Brainer

I’ll call her Joan. She is 61 years old, working in real estate and living comfortably in an upscale rental apartment thanks partly to rent control. She has a small 401k and a small, steady income from shared family ownership in a stable investment property. But the real estate business, you may have heard, hasn’t been wonderful lately. Joan lives frugally, gives of her time and resources to community nonprofits and is highly respected in business and social groups. She has no health insurance.

“I would if I could,” she told me some time ago. “But it’s either buy insurance or buy dinner. I’m fond of eating.” Twice in the past year Joan has had to have medical treatment; once for a nasty wound in a bike accident, once for an infection that required an overnight hospital stay. She went to the only place available, the understaffed emergency room of a crowded public hospital. Who picked up the tab? You and I. I am happy to do so, for Joan and everyone else who winds up in these predicaments. But come on, it’s not exactly cost-effective.

Expanding coverage to those currently uninsured is only one segment of this moving-target health reform; I hope it doesn’t get lost the way other key elements seem to be straying from the scene. People like Joan would be the first to purchase insurance through any reasonably-priced plan. Unfortunately, I don’t see many insurance companies eager to offer such a thing, and I don’t know where many of the currently uninsured will go if the public option comes off the table.  There were some 47 million uninsured at the latest count. Add to those the swiftly-rising numbers of independent contractors and freelancers of all sorts.

Getting non-emergency care out of the nation’s emergency rooms seems an enlightened thing to do… if we could just have a little more light and less heat in the discussion.

Health Care that Works: Integrated Medicine

President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)

President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)

Last night’s NewsHour included a segment that gives me hope: a clip of President Obama citing integrated medical systems that are actually working, followed by an excellent in-depth piece on the Billings MT clinic that proves the point. Billings is only one of such examples.

How do they work? By getting everybody under one roof and coordinating patient care. By letting different specialties work together, rather than sending a patient from one to another to another. By compensating doctors with salaries. This last is a sticking point: if you own a piece of the MRI business, for example, you might just be inclined to order more MRIs. Or you’re tied to the work-harder-get-richer principle. But more and more doctors seem interested in having a life, in not being on call 24 hours a day, in earning good money (integrated system compensations compare well with private practices) while focusing on patient care — without over-prescribing and over-ordering to guard against getting sued.

Why does this make such good sense? Because most patients (not all) sing its praises. Because integrated care saves money by keeping people healthier, reducing unnecessary procedures, keeping people out of hospitals… the list goes on.

My oncologist retired a year after a 2006 breast cancer episode. I went to meet my new choice on the 8th floor of Kaiser Medical Center in March, 2008. She looked at lab tests (2nd floor), spotted anemia, said I shouldn’t be anemic, ordered colonoscopy/endoscopy. G.I. doc (2nd floor) found celiac disease in June, connected me to nutritionist (across the street) and to endocrinologist (6th floor) who helped me design diet plus vitamins etc so I’m healthy again. Physical therapist (4th floor) discussed fitness plans. All of these specialists, my surgeon (2nd floor) and my primary care doc (4th floor) are friends. All respond to frequent e-mails within 24 hours, saving multiple calls and appointments. All post test results, etc on my personal web page. Thus, over a 3-year period: one overnight hospitalization for mastectomy, one out-patient procedure, a reasonable number of appointments, healthy patient.

Not everybody loves Kaiser, or the other clinics being studied. But it’s a model that works.

A Story of AIDS & Living Well

As he lay dying of AIDS, my friend Michael gazed over my head in the general direction of the bathroom, managed an almost-chuckle and said, “Nahh, not yet.” This was in 1995, on a foggy gray day in San Francisco, before the discovery of protease inhibitors that would alter the course of the disease. Michael and I had sat together at a dozen similar bedsides as members of the same AIDS support group, but he knew the scene far better than I.

Michael’s sister was due in from the east coast that day. In the bathroom medicine chest were the drugs he knew could end his life in hours rather than in the days or weeks he might have left. Michael’s body had grown frail, but his mind and spirit still soared.

AIDS is a terrible way to die. So are any number of other debilitating illnesses. But many of us believe that honest discussion of prognosis, possible treatments and options are not just empowering, but sane. There is a lot of insanity loose in the land.

A study to be published in the August 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine suggests that many surrogate decision-makers actually don’t want doctors to tell them about options and potential outcomes. I say, OK, fine; don’t ask.

But for someone critically ill who wants to know, why shouldn’t physicians be allowed to tell the truth? How likely am I to regain any quality of life? While my bad cells are being destroyed, what other destruction will happen? What if I choose no treatment at all?

Throughout decades of volunteer work with hospice, AIDS and most recently Compassion and Choices (counsel and support for terminally ill, mentally competent adults) 99% of the critically ill adults I have encountered have gained both power and peace from knowing their choices. They could tell you: it is not about death, it’s about living. Dying is going to happen. Living well takes effort.

In the 1990s almost everyone I knew who had AIDS also had a stash of drugs that could bring his life to a swift end. Very few of them used those drugs. Check the Oregon statistics: far more people request life-ending drugs than ever actually use them.

It’s about safety valves. It’s about  personal choice. It’s about control of one’s own life. It’s about living well.

For anyone to oppose the piece of our complicated health reform that provides coverage for critically ill (and other) individuals to gain understanding of their conditions is irrational and unreasonable. If those opponents choose to keep their heads in the sand that’s fine with me; but why deny the rest of us the right to reason?

Michael died that night, without opening the medicine chest. He could have told you he’d had enough. He would have told you that knowing the means to end his suffering was available had given him great strength and a degree of peace for over a year. He would have told you that straight talk from his physician (who also died of AIDS a few years later) empowered and emboldened him in a remarkable battle for life.

It was never about dying; it was about living well.

Sir Edward's Choice

It is ironic that while some of us were offering mostly light-hearted comments about how we might choose to die, news circulated  that  Great Britain’s reknowned conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife had just made that very real decision for themselves.

Sir Edward and his wife Joan, a ballerina before she gave up her own career in support of his and of their family, flew to a Swiss clinic sponsored by the Dignitas organization with their two grown children to end their lives together. He was 85, almost blind and losing his hearing; she was in the final stages of terminal cancer.

I strongly support the right of terminally ill, mentally comptetent adults to hasten their own death. While there is a very distinct line between hastened dying for the terminally ill and “suicide,” it would seem almost cruel to criticize Sir Edward’s choice. And the key word is choice.

What most of us would choose is precisely what Sir Edward and his wife did indeed have: a swift, peaceful end with loved ones at the bedside. Few of us would choose what actually happens too often in the U.S.: prolonged pain and indignity, often a death that follows extended, expensive, frequently futile treatment, in circumstances we would never have chosen for ourselves.

Physician aid in dying, now legal in Oregon and Washington, is one good way to put rational choice back in the hands of mentally competent adults.  The Oregon law has been in effect for over a decade and has proven that such legislation works. It offers comfort and compassion and has not been abused. Efforts to extend this humane law into other states have been vigorously fought by religious groups, but end-of-life choice is just as much a right as is reproductive choice; like other individual rights, it will eventually come.

Given the enormous financial cost of the universal healthcare system most of us want, and the enormous human cost of futile end-of-life treatments and denial of physician aid to terminally ill adults, the time has come for serious dialogue about the right to die.

Sir Edward Downes left a remarkable legacy in his music. A very private man throughout his long life, he nonetheless left another admirable legacy in his poignant death. Maybe those of us over here in the colonies can learn something. Maybe we could at least honor him with a little civilized discourse.