Cannabis distribution clinics are weaving through legal crossfire to provide a controversial plant to patients seeking pain relief from chronic illnesses.
By Deborah Gardiner
Andrew S. has tried various prescribed drugs to treat his rheumatoid arthritis. While prescription drugs help his aching joints, they are hard on the stomach. All in all, he believes none have worked as well as marijuana.
"For me, marijuana has no side effects and works best," said 29 year-old Andrew S. "You can't take prescription doses of these medicines for month and months. They mess with your digestion."
But federal drug policy forbids doctors from prescribing the cannabis plant to patients. Doctors in support of the ban point out that marijuana use carries serious health risks. Yet marijuana's proponents say the side effects are minimal, and are far outweighed by the benefits.
A scattering of distribution clinics situated nationwide are walking through legal crossfire to provide the plant to people who, like Andrew S., seek medicinal marijuana to relieve painful symptoms of chronic illnesses.
Some recent legal wrangling in California has been indicative of the national debate over legalizing medicinal marijuana.
A law allowing patients to use marijuana if recommended by a doctor was approved by California voters four years ago, circumventing federal drug policy. Numerous cannabis buyers' cooperatives opened soon afterwards, providing marijuana to people who could prove they needed it as a medical treatment.
Then, on Aug.29, in one of many efforts by federal and local law enforcement agencies to shut down clinical cannabis dispensaries, the U.S. Supreme Court opted to close the Oakland, Calif. cannabis buyers' cooperative. The ruling was based on how the Oakland cooperative defined medical necessity, which was less strict than the state of California law, and applied only to that organization.
For Andrew, who smokes marijuana weekly for pain relief, the federal ruling is annoying and unreasonable.
"The ruling is just bureaucratic momentum," complained Andrew. "No politician can support medicinal marijuana because they have propagandized people to think that marijuana is the same as hard drugs. By endorsing medicinal marijuana, they would be endorsing people to become crack heads."
Remaining cannabis clubs fight on
Wayne Jussman, director of a San Francisco medicinal marijuana advocacy group, also believes that the ruling is unjust. "There is no toxicological report saying that cannabis is detrimental to the body," he explained. Yet, said Jussman, "the Drug Enforcement Agency deems cannabis as lethal, addictive and with no medical value. Our government says that because it contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, they are opposed to it."
THC is one of various cannabinoids in the plant in itself, creating a euphoric feeling once in the system, Jussman said. It is also credited with relieving tension. Many users extract the THC by smoking the dried stems, leaves and flowering tops of the plant in cigarettes, but it can also be cooked into foods or drunk as a tea.
"The government is overlooking that there is a real medicinal need for marijuana," said Jussman, pointing out that thousands of people treat chronic pain with cannabis. "Each individual that uses marijuana for whatever need -- be that HIV, anxiety, epilepsy, leukemia or cancer -- finds that it works."
Directors of other Bay Area clinical cannabis dispensaries add that demand for the plant is overwhelming. "It seems odd to me that the federal government is trying to close clinics. Yet here I am swamped," said Rich Evans, Assistant Director of a Mission district co-op in San Francisco. "I have a line of 30 chronically sick people lined up outside to pick up their pot. There is clearly a need here."
Backdoor benefitsSome physicians are finding that marijuana is an effective treatment for a variety of illnesses, especially for diseases afflicting the elderly.
For instance, symptoms of the eye disease glaucoma decrease significantly when patients use marijuana, according to a recent report by Robert D. Newcomb, O.D., Professor of Clinical Optometry at Ohio State University. He wrote that smoking marijuana reduces eye pain in 60 to 65 percent of glaucoma sufferers.
Thus far, feedback from doctors recommending marijuana for pain control is positive. Dr. Steve Ellis is one of three Bay Area physicians evaluating how cannabis works as a treatment. Like all physicians, Ellis can only evaluate but not prescribe cannabis as a treatment. Prescribing marijuana remains illegal under state and federal laws. He says that patients using marijuana to reduce cancer, arthritis and glaucoma symptoms offer glowing reports.
"A lot of my patients can totally discontinue all prescription narcotics once switching to marijuana. They feel much better and are getting good pain control," said Ellis.
But while marijuana is deemed by many to be the gentle savior for chronic illnesses, it is not faultless.
For one, it gets you stoned. Andrew said that while marijuana helps alleviate the aching of his joints, he couldn't go to his job providing technical support for a San Francisco web design company after smoking it. "It's true that marijuana has no side effects like prescription drugs do. But it does get me pretty high. There's no way I could concentrate well at work. The only time I can use cannabis to control my joints is at night."
Some health experts say that the medicinal benefits of marijuana are outweighed by the damage it causes to the lungs and immune system. According to a report by Donald P. Tashkin, M.D., from the University of California at Los Angeles school of medicine, marijuana smokers are at greater risk of having lung infections and malignancy.
"Marijuana impairs the most important immune cells in the lung. Marijuana does not allow these cells to produce pro inflammatory substances important in the killing of bacteria and tumor cells," Tashkin said. And preparing marijuana to be eaten or drunk within other foods would not make it any safer, added Tashkin. While eating marijuana would avoid smoke damaging the lungs, the THC has negative health effects even in smaller doses, he explained.
Marijuana is also expensive. The rate of clinical cannabis varies but most San Francisco dispensaries charge $80 to $250 an ounce, according to Evans from the Mission co-op. "There is no insurance protection because marijuana isn't a federally approved drug," he said.
A San Francisco acupuncturist who wanted to go under the name Gee added that there are many herbal options that don't get you high that can help you with pain. "Of course Chinese medicine is about getting people away from Western medications. But there are many herbal remedies besides marijuana."
Deborah Gardiner is a freelance journalist from New Zealand based in San Francisco. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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