Print this page    •   Back to Web version of article

Cruising With Lazarus
Medical Marijuana

By David Salyer

November/December 2005

David Salyer
Marijuana has been used as a recreational, ceremonial and therapeutic substance throughout history. Our federal government classified marijuana as an illegal drug with no medicinal use long ago. Researchers wanting to do clinical studies must first get government permission and obtain a supply of pot from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a part of the National Institutes of Health. Yes, the only legal means of obtaining marijuana to do research in the United States is to get it from NIDA. Those NIDA hirelings routinely thwart such research, content to regurgitate the same specious warnings about marijuana's dangers that have been around since 1937.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse -- did you even know there was such an entity? -- is all about the abuse, not so much about the potential benefits of marijuana. They want us all to believe marijuana, or cannabis, has no medicinal value. And to make their point, they employ one of those infuriatingly illogical circular arguments that go something like this: marijuana has no commonly accepted medical use but more research needs to be done on marijuana's side effects and potential benefits because some of the chemicals in marijuana are clearly harmful to health but because of the adverse effects of smoking marijuana we can't approve your research project. Huh? Uh huh. And some people have fatal allergic reactions to peanuts, too, but note that we haven't banned them from grocery store shelves, shut down the farms or incarcerated any flight attendants for passing out peanuts to hapless airline passengers.

What we've got here is a government that promulgates all kinds of myths about marijuana. Decade after decade, they tell us marijuana is highly addictive, leads to harder drugs, kills brain cells, damages the lungs worse than cigarette smoking, causes highway accidents and overdoses. In fact, as far back as 1972, a review of the existing scientific evidence about marijuana by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded that while cannabis was not entirely safe, its dangers had been grossly overstated. Since then, researchers have conducted thousands of studies of humans, animals and cell cultures without government sanction. None reveal any findings dramatically different from those described by the National Commission in 1972. In 1995, based on thirty years of scientific research, editors of the British medical journal Lancet concluded that "the smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health."

So you see, it's not like the science doesn't exist; our government has nothing but contempt for it and simply chooses to dismiss it outright primarily because they didn't approve any of those studies in the first place and it undermines years of fiction and lies about marijuana. The truth is that different drugs produce different effects and pose different risks. The legal status of any given drug is not necessarily a reliable indicator of its potential for harm. Marijuana has never been shown to cause an overdose death, but alcohol poisoning kills more people every year than all illegal drugs combined.

Cruising With Lazarus: Medical Marijuana
Over the past decade, ten states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- have legalized the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, at least 115,000 people have obtained doctor recommendations for the use of marijuana. Patients use cannabis to manage a wide variety of conditions: chronic pain, eating disorders, epilepsy, glaucoma, arthritis, migraines, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy and AIDS wasting. For most of these individuals, marijuana was a last resort measure when first-line treatment didn't work. For some with poor or no insurance, marijuana is the cheaper alternative to pricey pharmaceuticals. States have encountered few problems with access, most having carefully regulated farms and cannabis clubs that dole out measured amounts to patients with doctor recommendations and appropriate identification.

You already know where this is heading. Under the Bush administration, federal agents have raided medical marijuana farms and cannabis clubs in several states. After one such California raid in 2002, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Richard Meyer crowed, "Marijuana is illegal under federal law regardless of state law." Meyer, however, seemed oblivious to the fact that while federal agents were handcuffing and sticking guns in the faces of cannabis farmers and providers, heroin was easily slipping into the states from as close as Mexico and as far away as Afghanistan.

Remember how George W. Bush spent most of his 2004 reelection campaign calling Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry a flip-flopper? Bush seems to have forgotten he told The Dallas Morning News that medical marijuana didn't warrant national attention back in 2000. "Each state can choose that decision as they so choose," he said. The very next year, he nominated John Walters -- on public record opposing states' rights regarding medicinal marijuana -- to become director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, saying, "Acceptance of drug use is simply not an option for this administration. We emphatically disagree with those who favor drug legalization."

John Walters, yet another intolerant, vindictive and deeply obsessive Bush appointee from the bowels of the worst kind of hell your most fundamentalist Christian aunt could imagine ... well, he's a punishment-and-prisons kind of guy who considers any sort of drug use a lapse in moral character. Even a cursory glance at his public remarks ought to convince you he's not remotely interested in the lives of chronically or terminally ill people desperate for some relief from debilitating conditions and diseases. "Our national medical system relies on proven scientific research, not popular opinion," spouts Walters. "To date, science and research have not determined that smoking marijuana is safe or effective."

Actually, there is plenty of science and research from which to conclude that marijuana can be helpful, not harmful; Walters just refuses to read it or acknowledge it exists. In recent studies, oncologist Donald I. Abrams of the University of California, San Francisco, found evidence of marijuana's effectiveness in the treatment of neuropathic pain among HIV-infected patients. Abrams has also shown that cannabinoids -- the active chemical ingredients in marijuana -- smoked or taken orally do not adversely affect HIV drug treatments. Beyond that is the anecdotal evidence from people with HIV, cancer and other serious illnesses who claim that smoking marijuana stimulates appetite, alleviates pain and nausea, and may even control grand mal epileptic seizures.

Further, many organizations -- Institute of Medicine, American Cancer Society, American Medical Association, Federation of American Scientists, National Academy of Sciences, Lymphoma Foundation of America, National Association of People with AIDS and more -- have endorsed medicinal marijuana. A CNN/Time poll published in late 2002 found that 80% of Americans age 18 or older believe that adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it. Over the last decade, in fact, polls have consistently shown between 60% and 80% of Americans support legal access to medical marijuana. In 2004, both a statewide Alabama poll commissioned by the Mobile Register and a Scripps Howard Texas poll reported 75% support for medicinal marijuana use. Yes, Alabama and Texas -- two of those so-called conservative red states -- are filled with individuals who don't care if really sick people smoke some grass to feel better.

But then the president, John Walters and the DEA don't care much about popular opinion or science anyway, unless it just happens to align with whatever arbitrary, fanatical posture they've adopted. Does this vehement opposition to doctor-prescribed cannabis treatment make any sense? Where is the generosity of spirit? Where is the compassion? And ultimately, doesn't it look like they care more about preserving some outdated, uncompromising drug policy than they do about the lives of suffering chronically and terminally ill human beings?

David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer-sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.