Tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are pictured on a T-shirt seen in Central Florida. The caption reads, “Ask your doctor which of these is least harmful to your health.”
That’s a timely question. On March 10, 2011, Rep. Jeff Clemens (D- Forth Worth) proposed a bill to allow medical marijuana in Florida. Given the conflicting information available on the dangers and benefits of marijuana, consulting a physician seems an excellent way to get an informed yet unbiased opinion. However, getting a public response from a physician can be a challenge.
The Florida Medical Association has had two somewhat contradictory policies in recent years regarding medical marijuana. In one, the FMA urged “governmental agencies to expedite unimpeded research into the therapeutic potential of smokeable marijuana.” Another resolution stated the FMA “vigorously opposes any attempt to legalize marijuana as a medicine…until such time as its medical efficacy is proven through long established scientific and medical testing procedure.”
Neither resolution is still on the FMA books. A spokesperson says the organization no longer has any official policy on medical marijuana and will offer no quotes on the subject.
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Individual physicians also appear content to remain silent. Several who declined to give their educated opinions for this story claimed, off the record, they were concerned about possible reprisal and intimidation from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA says it has no policy of retribution and practices no intimidation tactics against physicians who speak out publicly. Chris Jakim, DEA Staff Coordinator of Public Affairs, said in a telephone interview, “Absolutely not. No one here is going after individual doctors…we have too many big fish to keep us busy.”
Jakim says the DEA does “conduct criminal investigations against doctors who are breaking the law,” but says, due to lack of staff, they are unable to “debate each and every one with whom we disagree.”
Mary Lynn Mathre counters, “Clearly the DEA intimidates, there is no doubt about that. If a doctor says something openly, they will be looked at.”
With more than thirty-five years nursing experience, Mathre has been deeply involved in the cannabis debate. She’s the president of “Patients Out of Time,” a non-profit group educating health care professionals and the public about medical cannabis.”
“There is more and more science available,” she stated in a phone interview. “Doctors know in their hearts it is medicine, but are reluctant to say so. There is the threat of being investigated, so the intimidation is real.”
During her interview, Mathre insisted on using the term “cannabis” rather than “marijuana,” which she considers a slang term with a historically negative and racist origin.
A look into the history of cannabis reveals it was legal in this country for many years. America’s first cannabis law was in 1619, and it actually required farmers in Jamestown to grow hemp to be used for such products as rope, sails, tarpaulins, flags and paper.
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In his book, “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser wrote, “In the latter half of the nineteenth century marijuana became a popular ingredient in patent medicines and was sold openly at pharmacies…as a cure for migraines, rheumatism, and insomnia.”
According to AllMedicalInfo.com, “the name marijuana (Mexican Spanish marihuana) is associated almost exclusively with the plant’s psychoactive use. The term is now well known in English largely due to the efforts of American drug prohibitionists during the 1920s and 1930s, which deliberately used a Mexican name for cannabis in order to turn the populace against the idea that it should be legal, playing upon attitudes towards race. Those who demonized the drug by calling it marihuana omitted the fact that the ‘deadly marihuana’ was identical to cannabis indica, which had at the time a reputation for pharmaceutical safety.”
The late Charles Whitebread, who was a law professor at the University of Southern California, studied the legal history of marijuana. He said one of the biggest reasons many states passed criminal laws against the use of marijuana between 1915 and 1937 was hostility towards Mexican migrant workers, who sometimes used the drug.
The first federal law against marijuana was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Whitebread says there were three bodies of testimony. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, speaking for the government, said, “Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” Next came testimony from spokespeople representing industries that were financially threatened by hemp. Finally, two pieces of medical testimony were introduced.
According to Whitebread, “The first came from a pharmacologist…who claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died.” The other testimony came from Dr. William Woodward, Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association, who testified, “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug, “ to which a Congressman replied, “Doctor, if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?”
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Scientists and doctors continued to study the drug. In 1974, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia reported THC slowed the growth of cancer in laboratory mice. Shortly thereafter, President Gerald Ford banned public cannabis research. Major pharmaceutical companies were given exclusive research rights, but that research is very expensive and there is little incentive for the drug companies.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has studied cannabis since 1967 and is not bashful about answering the question posed at the beginning of this story. Grinspoon says, “While it’s certainly not harmless, it’s much less harmless than alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana is remarkably non toxic. In all the years that marijuana has been used, there’s not been one single documented death from it. I don’t know that you can say the same thing about any other drug.”
The federal government’s studies on marijuana have focused on possible harmful effects of marijuana rather than potential medical benefits, not always getting the expected results. It still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal value and has ignored requests challenging that classification.
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Mathre isn’t buying the government’s argument that it needs more time to study cannabis. She says, “Watch the medical ads on TV for legal drugs. Listen to all the disclaimers about potential dangers. But, they want cannabis to be perfect. Everyone should be able to make that choice for themselves.”
Mathre was one of the featured speakers when Clemens introduced his bill at the state capitol in Tallahassee.
At the podium, she argued, “We don’t need more research. We welcome more research, but the patients need this medicine now.”
Despite increasing support for medical cannabis, the bill is still expected to face a tough uphill battle. Jodi James, Executive Director of Florida Cannabis Action Network, said in a telephone interview that the bill, “simply puts it on the ballot. Considerable amounts of money would have to be raised. But, this resolution is great for starting the debate.”
Given the conflicting messages from advocates and the government, it sure would be beneficial if doctors would get more involved in the debate.