Opinion: Enough with the pot shots


Why did Wendy Conte, a pleasant, blue-eyed woman who lives in a suburb of Buffalo, fly to Colorado last month to register for a second driver’s license? Because Wendy is a good mother: her 8-year-old daughter Anna suffers from daily seizures, despite receiving the best medicine New York has to offer. Vexed, Wendy flew to Colorado to get what she needed: medical marijuana.

Even if our state adopts Governor Cuomo’s recently proposed program for legalizing medical marijuana, getting treatment still wouldn’t be fast or easy for Anna. Cuomo is barely loosening the reigns—only 20 hospitals would have clearance to distribute marijuana—and frankly, New York voters would likely support a much more liberal distribution plan. According to a Quinnipiac poll released February 17, 88 percent of New York State voters think medical marijuana should be fully legalized.

It’s hard to cheer for such an unnecessarily cautious plan as Governor Cuomo’s. There should be no ifs, ands or buts about it—marijuana is a legitimate medicinal product that every hospital in New York should have access to. Our patients are currently being denied the best in palliative care—the provision of pain relief for the suffering, which is considered a basic human right—because the medical marijuana they need is barred by cultural stigma. That stigma has over-reached its bounds.

Our legal system is helpful as a general societal construct for identifying deviant behavior, but sometimes it lags behind the times, making a regular fool of itself. According to Michigan law, for instance, no woman can cut her hair without her husband’s permission. Common sense likewise tells us that using marijuana isn’t deviant when a cancer patient is doubled over with nausea.

Only serious diseases qualify a patient for a marijuana prescription: cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma and several other conditions. According to Chief Medical Correspondent at CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, many patients experience fewer adverse side effects from inhaling marijuana than from taking the other painkillers available to them. One of his patients, 3-year-old Charlotte Figi, went from having 300 seizures a week to three seizures a month after trying medical marijuana.

And i’s not just epilepsy patients whose quality of life can be improved. Just before his death of pancreatic cancer, State Supreme Court justice, Gustin L. Reichbach, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times imploring New York legislators to legalize marijuana, the single best substance for combating sleeplessness and nausea after his chemotherapy treatments. Cancer is a “nonpartisan disease,” he wrote, calling it “barbaric” to refuse him the one drug that took him out of “radiation hell.”

Why do we still hear tongues clucking at the suggestion to legalize medical marijuana in New York? Because, as Conservative Party chairman Mike Long argues, pot is much more addictive than baby boomers realize. Obviously it’s no white crystalline powder, but it acts as a gateway drug to those powders. The second primary argument against medical marijuana goes something along the lines of wherever pot goes, crime follows.

If that were true, then we would have crisp, clean pages of collected data to prove it. In fact, no statistics to date have implicated medical marijuana in causing mischief. California has not seen an “aftermath” in their prisons or addiction facilities, even though Proposition 215 (also known as the Compassionate Use Act) passed back in 1996.

Just last year, a study published in the Journal of Law & Economics announced that states saw an average eight  to 11 percent decrease in overall traffic fatalities after legalizing medical marijuana. Why a decrease? The study suggests this explanation: in states where marijuana is easily accessible, drivers often forgo drinking in favor of getting high. Driving abilities are impaired by marijuana, but an additional reaction compensates: drivers respond by “reducing their velocity, avoiding risky maneuvers, and increasing their "following distances,” the same study argues.

Why, then, have recent headlines seemed to report the contrary, such as NBC News’ alarming “Pot Fuels Surge in Drugged Driving Deaths” article? This is a headline aimed to pump up page views, not to make intelligent conclusions from the data. The overall number of traffic fatalities hasn’t “surged.” It hasn’t even rippled.

Partially at blame for the media confusion is a recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology comparing statistics from 2010 and 2004. This fact was found: since 2004, postmortem blood tests have shown an eight percent increase (from four to 12 percent) in the presence of cannabinol--a marijuana metabolite--in deceased drivers. This eight percent increase sounds like a clear indictment of marijuana and the way it flips that “recklessness switch.” But cannabinol can remain in the bloodstream for a full week after marijuana use. In other words, traces of cannabinol could linger six days after someone sobers up (and more importantly, retains his motor skills). Eight states legalized marijuana between 2004 and 2010. Wouldn’t we expect more responsible marijuana users to be going about their lives—working, eating, and driving? Only this can be concluded from the American Journal of Epidemiology’s recent study.

And research in neurobiology has established exactly how afraid we should be of marijuana dependence. Let’s just say that there’s a greater likelihood you develop an addiction to Bud Light Lime. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science reports that 15% of people who consume alcohol become addicted, compared to a nine percent addiction rate for marijuana use. As President Obama recently told the The New Yorker, after readily admitting that he smoked pot as a teenager, “I don’t think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol.”

In fact, many legalized substances are far more dangerous. Pillboxes all over America are rattling with antidepressants that are less effective (many people find Prozac no more effective than a placebo pill), and with painkillers far more addictive than marijuana (such as Demoral or Oxycotin). It’s time to do what 20 states and the District of Columbia have already done: legalize a better choice of medication.