Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thank You For Pot Smoking

Isn’t it finally time for a compassionate medical marijuana policy?  For too long the issue has been held up by cultural prejudices and long held political grudges.  It’s the old hippie/square square-off and its time now to get over it and act like adults when it comes to health care.  In a country where there are still open wounds over the Civil War, and in a world where millennium-old grudges are still at play in the Middle East and elsewhere, it’s no surprise that irritations over Jane Fonda and burned draft cards still ring loud and clear in our politics today.  What a travesty however that they can insert themselves into what should otherwise be a sane medical policy.  When it comes to health care we need to have a cold-eyed pragmatism, a respect for science, and most of all respect for the experiences of the patient.


Sadly this is often not the case.  A lot of people with power and voice can’t seem to separate the cultural history of the drug from its benefits that we can see today.   A lot more people don’t seem to have the courage to bring this unpopular but extremely simple issue into in a national dialogue.  There is a lot of talk of morality in this country, but what morality is there in making political hay from an issue that denies relief from people who are suffering?  Opponents claim that there is not enough medical evidence for the safety of the medical use of marijuana.  Remember that the next time you hear about a Viagra heart attack, or a Paxil induced teenage suicide.


The truth is, the evidence does bear out marijuana’s efficacy for a number of ailments. 

I lost two of my brothers to AIDS.  The both suffered a relentless sequence of opportunistic infections and an exhausting regimen of treatment. AZT, one of the first retroviral drugs approved by the FDA for treatment of AIDS had previously been developed as chemotherapy and then shelved as being too toxic and intolerable.  Along with this drug they endured chemotherapy, radiation, biopsies, blood tests, spinal taps and countless pills on top of pills on top of pills. Combine this with a host of other new and experimental pharmaceuticals, military strength antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-nauseals, anti-depressants and you have one big sick cocktail with a lot of side effects.  There was of course no other option.  AIDS patients found themselves not only sick but trapped in a system with no choices.  It was the vocal, activist wing of the AIDS advocacy movement that actually moved our national discussion of healthcare to acknowledge greater patient autonomy and industry accountability.  That impulse, especially in the drone of vague health care proposals in this year’s election cycle, is exactly what we need to realign medicine with its original purpose, health and compassion, and not to serve as tool of politics and profit.


It was no secret back then, nor had it been for years before that that marijuana use reduced nausea and stimulated appetite in cancer patients.  It is also proven to help sufferers of glaucoma.  My late brother Michael smoked pot during his illness. He had suffered for four years though Pneumocystis pneumonia, Cryptococcus Meningitis, Thrush, Lyme Disease, Kaposi’s Sarcoma and numerous other opportunistic infections.  Using marijuana was the only thing that brought him temporary relief from nausea, the discomfort from the combined medications, the aches and pains from his ailments.  It also held at bay the aggressive wasting that withered otherwise “healthy” AIDS patients down to unsustainable weights.  I witnessed it first hand, across the kitchen table in my parents’ house.  The joint was smoked, the water put on the boil, soon there was a big pot of macaroni and a bowl of ice cream to wash it down. Also, since marijuana is a mild sedative and can be a mood elevator in many of the people who use it. I watched my brother transform from a depressed, sick person, to a relaxed, funny, smiling fighter who could finally eat.


Michael had previously been prescribed Marinol, the synthetic pharmaceutical THC replacement approved by the government, but its soporific effects were too strong and it did not stimulate his appetite in the same way as the herb in its natural form.  In this case the plant was illegal but the product was not.  When I was in college I was hospitalized with a pretty fierce tonsular abscess.  (I say that when I am embarrassed to say “tonsillitis”.)   Sure it hurt, and I was dizzy with fever for a while but there was never any real threat to my life.  I couldn’t eat with a swollen throat and was given IV antibiotics. I was also given Demerol, every four hours, at my request.  The antibiotics took care of the abscess, the swelling and therefore most of the pain.  Still I had on demand access to one of the most powerful narcotics available for pain - a drug unlike marijuana which is dangerous and has tremendous potential for abuse and physical dependency. 


Lots of prescription drugs are similarly dangerous and together account for almost one hundred thousand deaths a year in the hospital. There are to date zero deaths caused by marijuana on record, and don’t wait around for that statistic to move very much any time soon.  Oxycontin, the bull in the china shop of prescription painkillers, quickly took the lead in a deadly epidemic of addiction and abuse in this country.  It is still produced, still legal for prescription, and still dangerous. And what of my Demerol “lost weekend”?  I wonder ultimately how much that cost.


Towards the end of Michael’s life my mother realized the positive effects that marijuana had on his quality of life.  She could see it just as I had, everyday in the house where she lived, her son, across the kitchen table. And you know what they say, a mother just knows.  It wasn’t long before she was driving him to meet a friend of mine who could get marijuana for Michael.  For the record lets just say that between hippie and square my mom is definitely more of the latter, more at home in the minivan, at Key Food, at a Wednesday Matinee with her theatre group, or in church where she attends Mass every morning.  Drug runs just aren’t her style.  In this case however she was that well-needed cold-eyed pragmatist, and that brave, big-hearted activist, taking things into her own hands and moving the country, one son at a time towards a more compassionate marijuana policy.


Just a note:  My brother Vincent did not use marijuana during his illness.  He exercised that choice in his treatment, as my brother Michael exercised his, albeit illegitimately.  Should my mom go to jail for supporting him?


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