Legalize medical marijuana: Its benefits are proven; Pennsylvania is behind the times

The following article appeared in the September 4, 2009 edition of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Perhaps you know a Pennsylvanian suffering from multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or AIDS, or someone who is struggling to work up an appetite because of the nausea they suffer from chemotherapy. Beyond the difficulty these people face in dealing with these debilitating conditions, what would you say ought to be done if there were a beneficial, very affordable medicine that these patients needed but that they could not obtain in a safe and legal way? That is the reality for far too many ailing Pennsylvanians when it comes to accessing medical marijuana. There is legislation pending in Harrisburg that would end the frustration so many of your ill friends and neighbors feel about being unable to legally obtain marijuana. The passage of House Bill 1393, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, would enable physicians to prescribe marijuana for patient use if they deem it medically appropriate. There is plenty of evidence to show that marijuana can help people cope with a variety of diseases. As far back as 1999, the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine reported, "Nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana." And there is plenty of data showing benefit for those with glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. That said, medical marijuana is not right for every patient. Nor is it even the first drug of choice. As the institute report continued, "There will likely always be a subpopulation of patients who do not respond well to other medications. The combination of cannabinoid drug effects (anxiety reduction, appetite stimulation, nausea reduction and pain relief) suggests that cannabinoids would be moderately well-suited for certain conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting." Doctors would need training on when and for whom marijuana ought to be prescribed. Organized medicine supports legalization of medical marijuana for the sick and terminally ill. The American College of Physicians, the American Nurses Association and the American Public Health Association are just three of the many medical organizations that believe marijuana has medical benefit. Pennsylvania would not be going out on a legislative limb in passing this bill. Thirteen states have already passed medical marijuana legislation. It is time that Pennsylvania joined New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, New Hampshire and other states in letting science and facts replace fear and misinformation when it comes to allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to the sick. The main worry about legalization seems to be the message it would send to children. The message is simple: There is a big difference between medicine and recreational drug abuse, between treating suffering and getting high. Kids are not stupid. When they see marijuana used with a doctor's prescription for someone with cancer it is not going to lead them to use marijuana in their buddy's basement or after school. In fact, states with medical marijuana laws have consistently seen a decrease in teen use. Legalizing medical marijuana isn't really a controversial issue in Pennsylvania. It is just one that needs a little bit of leadership and action by our elected officials. A May 2006 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 76 percent of Pennsylvanians support "allowing adults to legally use marijuana if a doctor recommended it." Pennsylvanians are in agreement with the rest of the nation according to polls from AARP and Gallup. After a state budget is finally passed, the Pennsylvania Legislature should approve House Bill 1393. No one in our state ought be forced to continue to suffer because of inaction in Harrisburg. Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania ( Brian Gralnick is president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (