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.

Medical marijuana: a boon & a challenge

When my sister Mimi found that marijuana could relieve her severe gastrointestinal distress, years ago, one joint after dinner was all it took. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep up the supply. After one foray into the rather scary realm of pot-dealing in a state (Georgia) where we could have wound up in jail very quickly, we decided that not even such clear relief was worth the risk.

Today, at least in California and 14 other states — with the District of Columbia possibly to be added soon — the risk is minimal but the dosage is fuzzy. The conundrum was outlined by writer Lena K. Sun in the San Francisco Chronicle:

On Tuesday, District of Columbia officials gave final approval to a bill establishing a legal medical marijuana program. If Congress signs off, D.C. doctors – like their counterparts in 14 states – will be allowed to add pot to therapies they can recommend to certain patients, who will then eat it, smoke it or vaporize it until they decide they are, well, high enough.

The exact dosage and means of delivery – as well as the sometimes perplexing process of obtaining a drug that remains illegal under federal law – will be left largely up to the patient. Doctors say that upends the way they are used to dispensing medication, giving the straitlaced medical establishment a whiff of the freewheeling world of weed.

Even in states where marijuana is allowed for medical use, doctors cannot write prescriptions because of the drug’s status as an illegal substance. Physicians can only recommend it, and have no control over the quality of the drug their patients acquire.

Because there are no uniform standards for medical marijuana, doctors have to rely on the experience of other doctors and their own judgment. That, they say, can lead to abuse.

California’s “quick-in, quick-out mills” that readily hand out recommendations have proliferated, worrying advocates. The state, the first to legalize medical marijuana 14 years ago, allows for a wider range of conditions, including anxiety.

To guard against abuse, some doctors say they recommend marijuana only after patients exhaust other remedies. Some doctors perform drug tests as part of pre-screenings.

Mimi died over a year ago. Her last decades, like almost all of her adult life, were spent in the State of Georgia, where medical marijuana is still against the law. I know what her required dosage was; legalization and proper oversight would allow doctors to learn dosages that work for their patients. It seems worse than cruel that thousands of other sick and dying citizens continue to be denied the potential relief that legalized medical marijuana could bring.

Dispensing medical pot a challenge for doctors.