COLUMN: Medical marijuana is unneeded, dangerous

by Willy Hwang

ON NOV . 5, California voters passed Proposition 215 -- 1996's worst legislation -- allowing individuals to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes when that medical use has been recommended by a physician. In reality, Proposition 215 will become a farce legalizing marijuana.

Widespread cases of "illnesses" requiring marijuana treatment will result from abuse of this policy. Five reasons exist for keeping marijuana illegal: 1) The availability of prescription drugs that serve the same purpose as its professed medicinal value; 2) Proposition 215's vague language legalizes pot for virtually everyone; 3) medical studies conclusively demonstrate its harmful effects; 4) its chemicals stay in the human body for a long time; 5) reputable medical organizations oppose legalization.

Proponents tout marijuana's effectiveness in treating pain and nausea although these medical functions are anything but unique. Treatments such as Tylenol 3 (codeine) already effectively control pain while Zofran and Kytril treat nausea. These legally available drugs treat symptoms more effectively and have fewer side effects. In the improbable event that marijuana were the only effective pain and nausea medication, Marinol and Dronabinol -- approved prescription drugs derived from marijuana's active ingredient -- already exist, although doctors rarely prescribe them due to availability of more potent and safer medications.

Proposition 215 provides that patients "who obtain and use marijuana ... upon written or oral recommendation of a physician are not subject to criminal prosecution."

Therein lies the problem: No record exists of an oral recommendation, and any drug addict who wishes to smoke marijuana can merely claim that his physician "recommended" it. Studies published in Drugs of Abuse, Immunity and Immunodeficiency implicate the Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol component of marijuana in suppression of white blood cells, thereby compromising the immune system -- hardly the best thing for an AIDS patient.

An American Review of Respiratory Marijuana Research Review investigation shows that marijuana smoking causes the alveoli -- oxygen-exchanging parts of the lung -- to shed inflammatory cells. In addition, research appearing in Medical Tribune indicates that people smoking two marijuana joints per day had "damage and irritation to the lung cells ... comparable to those who smoked a mean of 28 tobacco cigarettes per day."

A study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence demonstrates that marijuana impairs many functions. In comparing non-users to heavy users (five years at 20 or more times per month), the study found that the latter react very slowly in motor tasks, but more importantly, suffered disability in personal, social and vocational areas.

A Biological Psychiatry investigation implicates marijuana use in attention deficits that decrease work performance and memory retention. Increasing duration of marijuana use correlates with impairment of "ability to focus attention and filter out irrelevant information" while increasing frequency of use slows information processing.

Research featured in Neuro- toxicology and Teratology associates lower IQs with prenatal exposure to marijuana. In an investigation reported by Life Sciences , 4-year-old children with prenatal exposure to marijuana "showed increased behavioral problems and decreased performance on visual perceptual tasks, language comprehension, sustained attention and memory."

A case appearing in Nephron im- plicates marijuana smoking in kidney damage. The New England Journal of Medicine reviewed marijuana treatment of glaucoma and concluded that such treatment is dangerous because doses of marijuana cannot be controlled.

Marijuana can reduce intraocular pressure, but excessive or inadequate lowering of pressure could lead to blindness. Furthermore, current effective glaucoma therapies do not exhibit marijuana's impairment of motor skills.

Another problem is that THC decomposes into about 80 compounds before its elimination. Although the human body eliminates most toxins within hours, marijuana's constituent chemicals persist for several weeks in heavy users. The build up of THC's toxins magnifies mar- ijuana's long-term effects.

The American Medical Society, the American Glaucoma Society, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies and the American Cancer Society reject marijuana as a medicine. According to the National Cancer Institute, "Inhaling marijuana smoke is a health hazard with more than 400 potential cancer-causing compounds."

With compelling medical evidence demonstrating marijuana's deleterious effects, the government has a responsibility to ensure that marijuana remains illegal. Proposition 215's legalization of marijuana will lead only to a medical disaster for California and the nation.

This item appeared in the Opinion section of the November 15, 1996 issue.

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