A good friend of mine asked me to comment on whether I thought marijuana should be legally available for medical purposes.
My answer may surprise her, because I am opposed to legalizing marijuana as a prescription drug.
From what I know about marijuana, the claims of medical efficacy are, at best, unproven. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that marijuana is at least a useful palliative for a wide range of afflictions from glaucoma to cancer, but science is skeptical of anecdotes. And rightly so. It can be hard to replicate what is claimed in one person’s experience, harder still to standardize that experience across a multitude. But an anecdote is a starting point.
The fact of the matter is that almost all medical treatments rely on anecdotes to some extent. Medical science may know that a particular drug at a certain dosage relieves pain for a certain condition, but if you find the dosage insufficient as prescribed then your doctor may go on to authorize a higher dose. And if that drug happens to give you an even more troublesome side effect then your doctor may have to prescribe something else. These adjustments come from patient anecdotes.
So if someone – anyone – claims a specific benefit from smoking pot then why shouldn’t it be legal to prescribe?
My answer is this: It shouldn’t be illegal in the first place.
We seem to have fallen into a very bad trap in our society, the trap of believing that anything that provides comfort or relief to the afflicted must be authorized by somebody before we can use it. This may be perfectly true for things like opioids, which are generally so chemically complex that they require specialized knowledge to apply. But pot is a natural substance. You can grow it in your back yard, harvest it, dry it, smoke it. If it relieves your pain or lightens your mood or increases your awareness or calms you down then you should not have to have it prescribed for you.
Beyond that there is the question of “Who provides it?” Pot as a medical treatment is susceptible to absorption by pharmaceutical companies, and the recent record of pharmaceuticals is not encouraging. When “big pharma” can charge tens of thousands of dollars for a single dose of anything, you can imagine what such companies would do if they held the patent for pot.
When I was in the Navy I taught a week-long course in drug and alcohol awareness at the US Navy Human Resource Management School at NAS Memphis. While teaching that course I came across a study that had been commissioned by the Defense Department that looked at various legal and illegal substances which were popular for “getting high.” These substances were ranked in order of both damage to the individual and damage to society. Damage to the individual was defined as the degree of permanent/temporary/reversible impairment. Damage to society was defined in terms of dollars spent to treat the abuser plus dollars lost to society from his impairment. First on the list, which is to say the worst for inflicting permanent damage to the user and the most expensive to society to treat, was glue sniffing. Ranked below that were various opioids such as heroin. Much farther down the list were alcohol and tobacco. Even farther down the list was marijuana.
To me the implication was clear: We as a society are banning a substance that’s pretty benign while generously providing, and in some cases even subsidizing, substances that are deadly.
There is a concept in criminal law called a “lesser included offense.” In plain language, this is an offense the elements of which are also elements in a much larger offense. For example, if you are found guilty of burglary of a habitation then you are also guilty of trespass, which is a “lesser included offense” of burglary. If you are charged with murder and the prosecution can’t quite make the case that you intended to kill the victim with malice aforethought then you may still be guilty of the “lesser included offense” of manslaughter.
What we don’t seem to have as a legal doctrine, even in this “bastion of freedom” that we like to think of ourselves as, is a “lesser included freedom.”
If I am free to drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, especially in the privacy of my own home, then I must also be free to use drugs or other substances that are less damaging to me and to society. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants me the right to use alcohol as provided by law, so that amendment should cover the use of any substance that might be labelled an “intoxicant” that isn’t as powerful as alcohol. Pot qualifies.
I see the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes as a half-step in the direction of general decriminalization, and a dangerous half-step at that. By merely legalizing the medical use of marijuana we admit, even if only tacitly, that this is a substance that the government must control, restrict, administer and license. I do not believe the government must do any of these things for a plant I can grow on my porch.