Laws and medicine clash over medicinal marijuana use.
Still, the Institute of Medicine report acknowledged problems with some
legal drugs. Both oral THC and megestrol acetate, a synthetic derivative of
progesterone sold as Megace, can stimulate appetite in AIDS patients, but they
can also cause dizziness, lethargy, and other more serious side effects. In
addition, some patients say inhaling marijuana smoke gives them more control
over the effects than a pill containing THC. Yet, even if researchers
eventually do develop safer forms of the drug such as inhalers, the authors
observed, terminally ill patients currently in severe pain "will find
little comfort in a promise of a better drug ten years from now."
On that last point many Americans would seem to agree: In a nationwide
Gallup poll conducted after the report was issued, 73% of respondents favored
making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana to suffering patients. The
issue has also been cropping up repeatedly on the campaign trail. In an October
debate in Hanover, NH, Republican presidential contender John McCain was asked
how he reconciles society's tolerance for alcohol with the obstacles to
medicinal marijuana. "That is an excellent question," said McCain.
"Which I'd prefer to duck." GOP front-runner George W. Bush has said
that while he personally does not support medical marijuana use, states should
have the right to allow it.
Gore, responding to questions from a December town hall audience in Derry,
NH, recalled his late sister's struggle with cancer in the mid-1980s and said
some people "ought to have the option" of marijuana use: "We have
not given doctors enough flexibility to help patients who are going through
acute pain." In another New Hampshire forum his chief Democratic rival,
Bill Bradley, said he opposes medical marijuana use for now, but believes it is
"something we have to study more."
So far the federal government has approved a handful of studies. In one,
researchers at the University of California-San Francisco are looking at the
effects of the drug for patients with HIV. But even if scientists eventually
establish such safety, ultimately factors besides science are bound to come
into play. As the Institute of Medicine report concluded, this debate
"presents a policy issue that must weigh -- at least temporarily -- the
needs of individual patients against broader social issues."