"Marijuana saved my life," says Kuromiya, 57, who was diagnosed with
AIDS in 1988. "It's a great irony to me that I can buy cigarettes, which
will kill me, anywhere. But marijuana, which has kept me breathing, is
Kuromiya and others with debilitating ailments have long argued that
marijuana should be legally available when standard medical treatment can't
relieve a patient's suffering and pain. They're now finding hope in the
measured support that idea has received from some presidential candidates,
including Vice President Al Gore. And some believe the November elections,
which some political observers say could give control of the House back to the
Democrats, may bring a change in attitude on the subject to Capitol Hill.
Voters in six states -- Maine, California, Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, and
Washington -- have passed measures supporting medical marijuana use, and
proposals in two other states -- Colorado and Nevada -- are pending. But under
federal law the drug remains illegal. And while the government has rarely
stepped in to prosecute medical users, the Clinton administration maintains
that any change in marijuana's legal status should be based not on state
politics, but scientific data.
In March the Institute of Medicine, an independent organization chartered by
the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report examining just that topic.
After a two-year review of the clinical research and literature available, the
report concluded that marijuana cigarettes could help cancer and AIDS patients
control nausea and pain, though there's still only rudimentary understanding of
how the drug works. Findings were only "moderately promising" for
treatment of spasticity diseases like multiple sclerosis, and less conclusive
for glaucoma and seizure disorders like epilepsy. But the authors warned that
smoking marijuana poses its own health hazards -- including possible lung
damage and weakening of the immune system from impurities in plant material --
and should be recommended only as a last resort.
"Marijuana's future as a medicine does not involve smoking," says
Stanley Watson, a neuroscientist and substance-abuse expert from the University
of Michigan who cowrote the report. "It involves exploiting the potential
in cannabinoids -- (chemical compounds that are the active ingredients in
The best-known substance, THC, is already legally available as an oral
prescription drug sold under the trade name Marinol -- a fact that those
staunchly against medical marijuana use are quick to emphasize. "We already
have good medicines out there for every ailment that marijuana is reported to
help relieve the symptoms for, including cancer and AIDS," says Robert
Maginnis, a senior director at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC.
Maginnis and other opponents say legalizing marijuana for medical use sends the
public the message that the drug is safe -- a sure prescription for increased
illegal use by teenagers.