Through Their Eyes: Patients Battling For Liberty, Freedom, and Life
Writer’s comment: After observing several smirks and giggles from the class about my announced topic, a friend of mine noted, “that gives you an idea of how you’ll have to present your argument . . . to get through those thick skulls.” Hopefully the reactions were not due to “thick” skulls, but rather misinformed ones. I thank both Ms. Walker and the Prized Writing committee for having open minds. Unfortunately, in much of today’s society the mere mention of “the m-word” causes people to turn away.
I had two very special opportunities in writing this paper—talking with George McMahon and attending a meeting at the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club. I’ve read hundreds of pages of testimony and statistics about marijuana, but nothing made the issue as clear as speaking one on one to the real people involved in this unfortunate situation. This personal experience provided me with a compassionate understanding for the victims of a serious social mistake, and I only wish that readers will glean the same. Having a chance to write about something important to others, as well as myself, added strength to my researching skills and my writing ability. It also aided in landing me a job helping disadvantaged youths learn to grow and express themselves through art—another opportunity to make things right for people who need caring and support.
Instructor’s comment: The final assignment in my English 101 (Advanced Composition) class combines the three modes of writing the students practiced during the quarter: first-person reporting, explanation, and argumentation. I insist that this final essay include a dimension of personal experience or first-person reporting, because I want their arguments to incorporate all three classical modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Matt Worthy welcomed the challenge of supplementing the research he had already begun on his topic, the medical uses of marijuana, with some personal reporting. But it wasn’t easy, even after he managed to make the appropriate contacts. The monthly meeting of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club fell on the day before our final exam this spring. In the three days I could give him before grades were due, Matt did a heroic job of integrating the voices he heard at the CBC into his argument. Readers can judge for themselves how much these personal testimonies enrich the persuasive power of his essay.
—Jayne Walker, English Department
—Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present
If a doctor told you that you could either go blind in three years from glaucoma or break the law by smoking pot, which would you choose? If marijuana could prolong your life by allowing you to continue cancer chemotherapy without the unending vomiting and nausea, would you consider it? If cannabis could stop epileptic seizures that had plagued you since childhood, would you use it? This medicine can benefit patients suffering from these and many other afflictions, but it is being withheld; they are being denied a right granted to all living things—that of self-preservation.
“It’s not about drugs, it’s about letting men fight,” George McMahon told me when I was fortunate enough to speak with him about cannabis prohibition. McMahon is one of the last eight people in the United States currently receiving medical marijuana from the federal government. George was born with the need for drugs to help his condition—Nail Patella Syndrome (a rare neurological disorder). By the age of one he was being given beer, opiates before the age three, and had two forced addictions, to codeine and morphine, by the age of fourteen. He’s had every drug in the book, but marijuana is the one that helps: “This is damn good medicine, and it works the same every time.”
George was able to obtain marijuana through the federally regulated Investigational New Drug (IND) program, but it took him over two years to get past the repetitious paperwork. Few individuals were lucky enough to enter the program, and many didn’t last through the application period: “A lot of people tried to get in, and most of them have died,” says George. Later, 34 patients were approved for the program but were denied access to their medicine by the Drug Enforcement Administration (Gorman 27). In March 1992 the program was officially discontinued, leaving hundreds of ill patients without hope. McMahon’s daughter, who suffers from the same condition as her father, cannot obtain the drug either. By 1994, 36 states had enacted legislation to make marijuana available for medical use, but federal laws still inhibit the states’ wills (Grinspoon 17).
Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug—having a high potential for abuse, having no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and lacking accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. Schedule I drugs are not available to patients even by prescription and are only occasionally granted to researchers under strict guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration has, at various times, based its refusal of a schedule change for marijuana on claims that it lacks the authority to regulate the practice of medicine and that there is an absence of data necessary for approval. Yet as Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young observed in his review of another drug, MDMA, on May 27, 1986:
Perhaps it did, but the latter claim is gibberish anyway: experiments have been conducted to prove the therapeutic uses of cannabis, as well as many attempting to prove its harmful effects.
Marijuana currently shares its Schedule I classification with other drugs such as LSD and heroin. Below it, in Schedule II, reside the plants coca and opium, used to produce the medicines cocaine and morphine; these substances are highly restricted, but still available by prescription. Essentially what this means is that the United States government rates marijuana’s potential for abuse, and its public danger, higher than those of the Schedule II drugs—such as cocaine, morphine, or PCP (Leveritt 12). Dr. Don McMillan, of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says, “The thing you have to remember is that that schedule is a legal classification, not a medical one” (Leveritt 12). What he means is that this addictive hierarchy has not been decided by the medical community, but by politicians and government agencies. Dennis Peron, founder of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, defends his friends with a similar logic: “You would not ask a doctor to arrest a mugger. Don’t ask a peace officer to treat an illness” (CBC Interviews).
The Cannabis Buyers’ Club was designed to allow seriously ill individuals a safe environment to obtain what is still a taboo medicine. Mr. Peron invited me to a meeting at the club so that I could speak with some of the patients and see this carefully controlled establishment. Upon entering I was immediately impressed with a flyer on the wall, reading: “Do you have a problem with hard drugs? The CBC wants to help.” During much friendly conversation with the club members, what I heard most about marijuana prohibition is: it’s dangerous. Having to obtain this medicine illegally can be unsafe, especially with respect to the formidable threat of criminal prosecution. “Over one kilo,” says Steve of the CBC, “marijuana has the same federal punishment schedule as cocaine.”
But this is only one way the prohibition is dangerous for patients that can get their medicine on the street; for those who can’t, it’s directly life-threatening. Members of the CBC agreed with their founder that the issue is not about getting marijuana for them, but “for people like those in chemo-beds, and AIDS patients laid up with ‘wasting syndrome’—they can’t get it.” The anxiety and expense of such a deal are also serious factors for patients to consider. On the illegal market, depending on who they know, marijuana can cost anywhere from one to several hundred dollars an ounce. George McMahon possesses a leaflet from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA supplies his marijuana) that states the cost of growing his drug is only thirty cents an ounce—a price that could save the lives of many sick people who can’t go back to their jobs. George gets his medication free, though: “They won’t sell it to me; that would make them drug dealers!”
Jeff, a glaucoma patient who uses marijuana—under advice from his doctor—to reduce the pressure in his eyes, gave me one reason why it won’t be made available for the seriously ill: “Some pharmaceutical companies pay doctors bonuses if they prescribe their medicine.” And as George McMahon’s information shows, those companies would not make any money from an inexpensive medicine that can be grown at home. Jeff also suggests looking into where these businesses make do nations: “Not surprisingly, a lot of them help out with anti-drug campaigns. . . . This ensures that their medicine is the only one available.” To see this point proved, one need only look at Marinol, a synthetic medication produced to help patients who need marijuana. But this copy of THC (believed to be the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) “is only one of approximately 60 cannabinoids [found in the plant] which may have medicinal value individually or in some combination” (“Access” 1). Many patients find themselves unable to function under Marinol because of its extreme potency and unpredictable effects (McMahon and CBC). Nevertheless, this drug, not derived from the cannabis plant but produced by a pharmaceutical company, is placed in Schedule II and available by prescription.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers in marijuana patients’ way is one that they need on their side the most—doctors. When physicians speak out for medical marijuana they are stereotyped by a misinformed society, not to mention the risk of admonition and banishment from a bureaucratically controlled portion of the medical community. They are rejected further by a government that insists they have no substantial proof, and they are deprived of reasonable means by which to obtain it under the prescribed standards. As the most scrutinized and regulated professionals in the world, physicians are understandably hesitant to voice the controversial facts. But because the government asks for acceptable standards of medical use and safety, doctors are the only ones that can make a real impact on this issue. One condition for membership into the CBC is that the patients have letters from their doctors either stating that the patients should use marijuana or that the physicians are aware of and comply with their use. With the San Francisco club alone now having approximately 11,000 members, there must be some doctors who agree with marijuana’s benefits. Also, a poll taken in 1991 revealed that 44% of American oncologists have recommended, off the record, that their cancer patients use marijuana (“Medical” 1). Obviously the support is there; it just needs a confident public voice.
But doctors themselves are plagued by one superficial and fundamentally irrelevant problem—stigma. Marijuana’s reputation, a result of decades of misinformation and myths, has fostered massive skepticism in the public realm. Not everyone realizes that over thousands of years scientists around the world have discovered scores of medical uses for cannabis, including appetite stimulant, muscle relaxant, hypnotic, and nausea alleviator; it has also been found to lower intraocular pressure in glaucoma and to aid in treating malaria, constipation, fevers, dysentery, indigestion, migraine, venereal disease, depression, coughs, epilepsy, tetanus, neuralgia, menstrual cramps, asthma, postpartum psychosis, chronic bronchitis, gastric ulcer, urinary incontinence, rheumatic pains, and other chronic pain disorders—just to name a few (Grinspoon 3-7).
The prejudice against marijuana as medicine is unjust and immoral. One must weigh the pros (only a known fraction of which I have just listed) with the cons. What are the cons? We are told that marijuana is highly addictive, unhealthy, and unsafe—rumors that have run rampant for years but have never been confirmed to outweigh its value. An ongoing primate study by the National Center for Toxicological Research (funded by the NIDA) “discovered no adverse impact from marijuana on monkeys’ general health, no sign that heavy exposure to marijuana smoke caused lung cancer, and, with one exception, no long-term effects on the animals’ behavior from exposure to marijuana” (Leveritt 2). Dr. Grinspoon relates that “no human fatalities [from marijuana overdose] have been documented” (138). The Arkansas Times reported Dr. McMillan’s opinion that “the medical understanding of marijuana is that it poses a lower risk to society and individual health than that of two legal drugs—alcohol and tobacco” (Leveritt 12).
Many more legal and medical experts will confirm these testimonies, including Judge Young in a renowned decision on cannabis on September 6, 1988:
“[M]arijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. . . . One must reasonably conclude that there is accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision. To conclude otherwise, on the record, would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious.” Young went on to recommend “that the Administrator [of the DEA] conclude that the marijuana plant considered as a whole has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, that there is no lack of accepted safety for use of it under medical supervision and that it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II.” (Grinspoon 15)
But it wasn’t.
So why, in the presence of all this evidence and testimony, isn’t marijuana available for patients who need it? Feelings are mixed among law officials about the war on marijuana, and some have even acknowledged that it is a waste of their time and the taxpayers’ money. But George McMahon has a logical opinion about why the majority, outside of San Francisco, are still gung-ho about it: “A lot of officers will lose their jobs if they don’t have any more skinny [sick] men to bust.” The government administration also has a personal fear—giving in to pot as medicine would unravel an entire anti-drug movement that has been fueled since the Reagan “Just Say No” years. Many citizens are against the federal government spending money on a marijuana research p rogram because they think we don’t have the funds, but in 1993 approximately $7 billion was spent on the marijuana war (NORML 3). The resources are there; we’re just spending them the wrong way. This money (at least some of it) should be used to help people, not to hurt them.
Polls taken in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union show that 64% of the voting public favor making marijuana legally available for medical uses where it has been proven an effective treatment. Lawyers defend their clients’ “medical necessity” in court every day, and numerous judges approve it by dropping charges against them. The Federation of American Scientists and the American Public Health Association have both called on the federal government to allow research into medicinal uses of cannabis for the seriously ill, with the latter concluding “that greater harm is caused by the legal consequences of its [marijuana’s] prohibition than possible risks of medicinal use” (“Access” 1).
Medical marijuana’s rivals say that these common pleas are only used to further the possibility of “recreational” use. To those who subscribe to that theory, I can say only this: I met a man who could not see, but marijuana gave him back his vision when nothing else could. I spoke with a man who has suffered pain that is incomprehensible to me every day of his life since he was born, but marijuana eased his pain. This man’s daughter has inherited his agony, and she cannot get the same relief. I have shaken the hand of a compassionate man who has now devoted his life to getting this outlawed medicine for innocent people who can’t. I have sat and heard some of the most kind and warm individuals in this world tell me about how they have watched their friends suffer and die, and all the while they knew there was a medicine for them. Yet what I have not heard is a single logical reason why this is all happening. It is time to stop making excuses and start saving lives. “The DEA and FDA want evidence?” says Jeff, the once-blind glaucoma patient. “Look at me. . . . I can see again” (CBC).
“9513: Access to Therapeutic Marijuana/Cannabis.” American Public Health Association. November, 1995. Available: http://www.calyx.net/~olsen/MEDICAL
Cannabis Buyers’ Club Meeting and Interviews (CBC). San Francisco, June 7, 1996.
Gorman, Peter. “Marijuana and AIDS.” High Times Dec. 1994: 26+.
Grinspoon, Lester, M.D., and James B. Bakalar. Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
Leveritt, Mara. “Reefer Madness: Pot’s Tab in the War On Drugs.” The Arkansas Times. 16 September, 1993: 11-12. Available: http://www.calyx.net/~olsen/MEDICAL
“Medical Marijuana in Australia.” Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics News. Spring 1995. Available: http://www.calyx.net/~olsen/MEDICAL
McMahon, George. Telephone Interview, May 30, 1996.
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Marijuana Prohibition: A Colossal Failure. Washington D.C., 1995.
Young, Francis L. “In The Matter of MDMA Scheduling.” Docket No. 84-48. May 22, 1986. Available: http://www.damicon.fi/drugs/mdma.scheduling.html