Moving Toward Medical Marijuana

Limits Eased Amid New Evidence of Health Dangers

LONDON, NOV. 8, 2003 ( Promoters of marijuana have had some recent victories. The British Parliament voted in favor of reclassifying its use from a Class B drug to Class C. This means those caught with marijuana will only receive a warning by authorities and have the drug confiscated, BBC reported Oct. 29.

Both the opposition Conservative Party and the British Police Federation criticized the reclassification. The police federation’s chairman, John Barry, said the change sent out “a confusing and conflicting message,” especially to young people.

Earlier, the Belgian Parliament legalized the personal use of marijuana, the British daily Guardian reported March 29. Users are now allowed to smoke small quantities of the drug in private, provided they do not disturb public order.

In Canada the federal government is also moving to reduce penalties for marijuana use. In May the ruling Liberal Party introduced legislation to reduce penalties for personal use of the drug, the Globe and Mail reported May 27. The government also announced a five-year, $250 million fund (US $187 million) to educate Canadians about the dangers of smoking marijuana. Authorities will use the money to publicize that marijuana remains illegal and can be harmful.

Medical use extended

Canada had previously introduced laws allowing medical use of marijuana (also called cannabis). Some doctors recommend marijuana for cancer patients to enhance appetite and reduce pain and nausea. But the Ontario Court of Appeal recently struck down parts of the program, the Canadian Press reported Oct. 7.

The court ruled that parts of the federal Marijuana Medical Access Regulations that govern the growth and distribution of the drug for medicinal purposes are unconstitutional. The ruling agreed with a lower court ruling in January that found the regulations were unfair because they forced those who qualified under the program to either grow their own pot or buy it on the black market.

By contrast, medical use of marijuana received a green light in the Netherlands. Since September, more than 2,000 pharmacies are obliged to stock the drug, the British daily Independent reported Sept. 1.

Two strengths of cannabis, a stronger and a milder version, are available. Medical marijuana will be distributed by a state-run bureau that has contracted two of the Netherlands’ biggest growers to produce plants of a constant quality.

And, in the United States, the Supreme Court announced it will let stand a federal appeals court decision that blocks the government from punishing doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients, the Washington Post reported Oct. 15.

Last year the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction blocking federal attempts to prevent doctors from telling patients marijuana might help them. The policy was held to violate free-speech rights.

Yet, possession and distribution of marijuana still remains illegal under federal and state laws in all states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) that have medical marijuana laws, the Washington Post reported.

Earlier this year the Australian state of New South Wales announced a four-year trial for medical use of marijuana. The plan allows people suffering from chronic pain or wasting illnesses to use the drug, the Sydney Morning Herald reported May 21.

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr emphasized that the government did not support decriminalization of cannabis for recreational use. The president of the state branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr. Choong-Siew Yong, said it supported the trial.

Yong added that it was important that “nontraditional” methods of delivery were used. “You have to be able to properly control the dose,” he said. “Also, smoking cannabis is as harmful or more harmful than smoking tobacco. As a doctor I could not support that.”

Cannabis critics

The trial was criticized by David Perrin, executive officer of the Drug Advisory Council of Australia. In a May 23 article for the national daily The Australian, he pointed out that research has not only identified health dangers from smoking the drug, but shows problems with any form of its use.

“Cannabis is an addictive drug that causes cognitive dysfunction affecting self-awareness, memory, concentration, skills, behavior and personal relationships,” Perrin wrote. He cited a recent Western Australian government study that linked marijuana use with suicide because of the depressive effects of the toxins present in the drug’s active compound, THC.

Criticism of medical marijuana also came in a Washington Times opinion article on July 2 by Robert Weiner and Amy Reith. They said the push for the smoked form of marijuana amounts to a tactical move in the fight for full legalization of the drug.

The article observed that the American Medical Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the American Glaucoma Society, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Cancer Society have all rejected the use of smoked marijuana as medicine.

They then cited research by the National Institutes of Health showing that the use of marijuana adversely impacts concentration, motor coordination, memory, lungs and reproductive and immune systems.

A July 22 commentary in the Los Angeles Times elaborated on the health dangers of medical marijuana. “There is no scientific evidence that qualifies smoked marijuana to be called medicine,” explained Andrea Barthwell, a deputy director at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

She noted that in 1999 the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine report said that “marijuana is not a modern medicine.” The institute was particularly troubled by the notion that crude marijuana would be smoked by patients, which it termed “a harmful drug-delivery system.”

A May 3 editorial in the British Medical Journal confirmed the dangers of marijuana. It observed that smoking marijuana is significantly more dangerous than smoking tobacco. Moreover, “regular use of cannabis is associated with an increased incidence of mental illnesses, most notably schizophrenia and depression.” The editorial also cited research that shows heart problems can be brought on by smoking marijuana.

Also in Britain, Hamish Turner, president of the Coroner’s Society, warned that marijuana use is leading to the deaths of hundreds of young people in accidents. Turner said that the drug, which is often portrayed as harmless, has increasingly been behind deaths recorded as accidents or suicides, the Telegraph reported Nov. 2.

He estimated that over the last year marijuana was a significant factor in about 10% of the 100 cases he had dealt with in south Devon. “It is an awful waste of young lives,” he said. “People are trying the drug at a very young age. Many go on to harder drugs and I am dealing with more and more heroin overdoses.”

Turner commented that stronger varieties of marijuana — up to 10 times more potent than those used in the 1960s — were now common. He warned that regular and prolonged use leads to panic attacks, paranoia, psychosis, racing heart, agitation, an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, and even a tendency to violence.

The Telegraph reported that according to another coroner, Veronica Hamilton-Deely, national figures supplied by coroners’ offices showed that in 2000, 12% of the 3,400 people killed in road accidents showed traces of cannabis: a sixfold increase on a decade earlier. The question remains why in the face of such overwhelming medical evidence governments are ceding to campaigns by pressure groups to extend its use.

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