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Legal and Ethical Issues of Medical Marijuana

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Autor:   •  February 17, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  2,141 Words (9 Pages)  •  1,021 Views

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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


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