The Debate Over Medical Marijuana
Politicians and patients are grappling with questions about the use of marijuana for medical treatment.
"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.
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.