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Medicinal Marijuana

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Category: Social Issues

Autor: reviewessays 17 February 2011

Words: 2141 | Pages: 9

Legal and Ethical Issues of Medical Marijuana

The debate over legalizing the use of marijuana is rooted in real world concerns such as crime, violence and public health. It is also a problem rooted in conflicting values. Thus, while the courts and law enforcement authorities continue to crack down on marijuana use, they also have to contend with a growing public acceptance of marijuana use.

This paper examines both sides of the debate to legalize marijuana, focusing on the issue of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The first part of the paper evaluates the arguments of those who favor keeping marijuana illegal, focusing on arguments of the gateway drug concept and the health dangers of marijuana use. The second part of the paper looks at the arguments for legalizing marijuana, especially for medicinal purposes. The paper gives special attention to the ethical and legal arguments of both sides.

In the conclusion, the paper suggests a compromise position – the controlled legalization of medicinal marijuana. This position addresses the most valid concerns of those who favor the drug’s legalization while continuing to protect people from its harmful effects.

Anti-Marijuana arguments

Critics charge that the current drive to legalize medical marijuana is simply a ploy to legalize all marijuana use. Marijuana supporters are thus advancing a personal agenda, cloaking it under a blanket of seeming compassion.

No significant benefits

Many experts argue that there is no scientific proof that marijuana has significant health benefits. While there are hypotheses that compounds found in marijuana may have medicinal potential, there is no medical proof that smoking the plant in its crude form is an efficient way to deliver these compounds into the body (McDonough 2000).

In fact, many physicians and patients who have tried to smoke marijuana in its crude form found the experience difficult and unpleasant. Scientists attribute this as a side-effect of inhaling smoke, which irritates the lungs. Even Lester Grinspoon, an advocate of medical marijuana, cites the ill effects of marijuana smoke, saying “the lungs are not made to inhale anything but fresh air” (cited in McDonough, 2000).

Harmful effects

Other scientists believe that not only is marijuana ineffective, it could also be harmful. First, marijuana is a very addictive drug. The effects of marijuana on the brain are similar to the effects of drugs like nicotine and heroin. Marijuana triggers the release of dopamine, pleasure-inducing chemicals, in the brain. Over time, sustained marijuana use leads a person to become dependent on the drug (Wickelgren 2002).

These addictive effects are underscored by the fact that people who try to stop using marijuana often go through a strong withdrawal stage. Neuropharmacologists have observed that addicted people who try to stop using marijuana experience a surge in their corticotrophin-release factor (CRF) levels, leading to stress and anxiety (Wickelgren 2002).

People who thus use marijuana for medical purposes thus run the risk of addiction and fluctuating chemical levels. They are also exposed to several other toxins.

For example, it is a sad irony that cancer patients who use the drug for nausea are exposed to carcinogens in marijuana smoke, which is roughly 30 times more potent that cigarette smoke. While the good effects for AIDS patients are unproven, scientists question the wisdom of exposing a patient with a compromised immune system to a potentially harmful substance. Given its known carcinogenic qualities, marijuana could exacerbate lung infections and even introduce AIDS-related illnesses like Kaposi’s sarcoma (Barr 1999).

Marijuana activists also generally gloss over the fact that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient in marijuana – has been synthesized into a legal prescription drug since 1986. For almost 15 years, physicians have actually been able to prescribe the active ingredient in marijuana. Despite this availability, however, most physicians have opted not to prescribe THC, because there are several other drugs and pain-management techniques which have been scientifically proven to be more effective (Barr 1999).

In fact, the crux of the anti-legalization camp’s argument is that while the therapeutic benefits of marijuana are unproven, there is wide documentation regarding the drug’s ill effects.

The similarity between the pleasure-effects of marijuana and heroin and the severity of its withdrawal symptoms lends credence to the controversial “gateway” theory. Critics of legalization argue that marijuana users who do not choose to stop can very well become inured to the drug’s pleasure effects. This may lead them to seek the same pleasure effects from stronger and deadlier drugs such as cocaine (Wickelgren 2002). Already, researchers at Columbia University have found that children who drank, smoked cigarettes or used marijuana were 16 times more likely to use harder drugs like heroin and LSD (Barr 1999).

Legality and ethics

Opponents of marijuana legalization score attempts to blame the drug’s prohibition as the cause of the crime and dangers associated with drugs like marijuana. For opponents of legalization, the drug is prohibited precisely because it is dangerous, not the other way around.

Marijuana is illegal because its use poses dangers to both individuals and society. Individuals who use marijuana run the risk of becoming addicted and of a myriad of health risks. In addition, marijuana use is also detrimental to society at large.

Because legislation legalizing medical marijuana could easily be abused, such legislation would likely increase the use of non-medical marijuana as well. Marijuana is already a proven cause of absenteeism in the workplace, increased accidents and more insurance claims. Estimates peg the costs of on the job drug use at more than $100 billion per year (Barr 1999).

By causing impaired judgment and altering a user’s perceptions, marijuana also poses a danger for law enforcement and drivers. One study of reckless drivers found that 45 percent of those not under the influence of alcohol tested positive for marijuana (Barr 1999).

These dangers lead to another ethics-based argument regarding the legalization of marijuana for ethical purposes. Physicians and ethicists question the logic of using a potentially dangerous drug when a synthesized substitute for THC. They argue that exposing sick and immune-compromised patients to carcinogens and lung irritants is illogical. Finally, they argue that giving terminally ill patients false hope regarding the medical benefits of marijuana is simply cruel.

Advocates of Medical Marijuana

The argument for legalization concerns the use of marijuana as a medicinal drug. As a pharmacological agent, marijuana can alter body chemistry. Those who argue for legalization maintain that marijuana’s pharmacological properties make it a valid form of treatment for a host of illnesses.

Alleviating symptoms

Many glaucoma sufferers, for example, testify that smoking marijuana alleviates the pressure in the eyeball that leads to damages in the optic nerve. In fact, ophthalmologists were legally allowed to prescribe marijuana for glaucoma until 1991, when new glaucoma drugs became available. However, many of these new drugs have side effects like nausea. Some ophthalmologists therefore believe that marijuana should be allowed, at least to augment other glaucoma treatment methods (“Marijuana as a Medicine” 1997).

The benefits of marijuana in reducing nausea are also well documented. This makes marijuana a potentially important aid for cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy. In addition to helping with the nausea, many chemotherapy patients report that marijuana indirectly helps in their recovery by minimizing the helplessness they feel in the face of cancer (“Marijuana as a Medicine” 1997).

Many patients suffering from multiple sclerosis also report that only marijuana helps to relieve the burning sensation that often plagues their joints and limbs. Finally, as an appetite stimulant, marijuana also helps to counter the “wasting away” symptoms associated with AIDS patients (“Marijuana as a Medicine” 1997).

While smoking marijuana may have untoward health effects, physicians argue that these effects should be seen in light of the management of often terminal symptoms. Given the suffering undergone by many AIDS and cancer patients towards the end of their life, the risks of taking marijuana would pale in contrast to their therapeutic and pain-relieving benefits (Newkirk 1999).

Obstacles to research

Contrary to those who argue that marijuana has no scientifically proven benefits, supporters of legalization argue that the dearth of scientific evidence is due to the laws banning the use of marijuana. Physicians who prescribe the drug face the loss of their medical license, while medical marijuana users are prosecuted for drug possession.

For example, a team of AIDS researchers at the University of California in San Francisco planned a series of studies to scientifically investigate the effects of smoking marijuana on the immune system. This research team was led by respected AIDS scientist Donald Abrams. Despite their credentials, however, both the federal government and the National Institute of Health denied permission that would allow the research team to legally obtain and possess marijuana for their study (“Marijuana as a Medicine” 1997).

Furthermore, proponents of legalization argue that the availability of other comparable drugs is not the standard to measure the efficacy of medical marijuana. After all, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for licensing a drug do not stipulate that the new drug must perform better than its competitors. Instead, the drug has to be better than a placebo (“Marijuana as a Medicine” 1997).

Individual stories and patient testimonials seem to indicate that at the very least, marijuana acts better than a placebo in reducing nausea, promoting appetite and minimizing pain. Advocates thus insist that more research is needed to investigate marijuana’s therapeutic effects. Towards this, the blanket ban on medical marijuana should thus be lifted.

Legality and ethics

Like their opponents, the advocates of medical marijuana frame their stand on a mixture of legal and ethical principles.

First, they argue that marijuana use is a “victimless crime.” Marijuana prohibitions are thus nothing more than state intrusion into an individual’s private affairs.

This issue is even more important in the fight to legalize marijuana as a treatment of illnesses like glaucoma, cancer or AIDS. Many physicians believe that decisions regarding the best courses of treatment should be left between physicians and patients, not the state. Any government intrusion in this matter thus violates the confidentiality between doctor and patient (Newkirk 1999).

Aside from overstepping their legal boundaries, legalization advocates argue that by disallowing research, the government violates several important ethical principles as well. Polls and surveys have already shown a growing support for decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes. In 1996, for example, California voters approved Proposition 215, which exempts people who grow marijuana for medical purposes from prosecution. Despite this initiative, however, the government refuses to fund or allow research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana at the University of California.

Second, by refusing to fund research and threatening researchers and physicians with prosecution, the government itself is acting as an obstacle to scientific research. Given the suffering of many terminally ill patients, it is government’s responsibility to facilitate research, not hinder it.

Finally, there is the question of the rights of the patients themselves. Many patients have reported that only marijuana helped alleviate symptoms such as nausea and pain. However, in many areas, such patients are prohibited from using or possessing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

In states like California, where medical marijuana is already legal, many patients who could benefit from the drug could not afford it. Marijuana continues to be excluded from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, placing the pain-relieving drug out of the reach of many ill patients.

Conclusion

In their current state, the laws against legalizing marijuana ignore the rights of a significant segment of the population. They allow the government to overstep their legal authority at the expense of the rights of patients to make their own medical decisions.

Given these arguments, the most effective way to address the marijuana debate is a controlled legalization. Currently, many illegal and addictive drugs like morphine and Demerol are available to physicians for medical purposes. There is no reason why this same policy could be applied to marijuana. This controlled legalization for medicinal purposes would thus allow physicians to prescribe the drug for patients in need, while keeping it away from others who only seek marijuana for its deleterious and addictive effects.

Works Cited

Barr, Bob. (1999). “Marijuana Should Not be Legalized Under Any Pretense.” Commonwealth, June. Retrieved 12 April 2003 from ProQuest Database.

“Marijuana as Medicine: A Subtle Syllogism.” (1996). The Economist. August 16, 1997. Retrieved 12 April 2003 from ProQuest Database.

McDonough, James R. (2000). “Marijuana on the Ballot.” Policy Review. April/May. Retrieved 12 April 2003 from ProQuest Database.

Wickelgren, Ingrid. (2002). Newkirk, Gary (1999). “It’s Just a Weed.” Modern Medicine, 67(6), June. Retrieved 12 April 2003 from ProQuest Database.

“Marijuana: Harder than Thought?” Marijuana. Louise I. Gerdes, ed. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.