Marijuana as Medicine ?

The attraction that the medical profession has for medical marihuana continues to mystify me. Many of the same physicians who will exercise exemplary caution in caring for their patients, will throw caution aside when it comes to pot. I know internists in private practice who refuse to accept new patients if they smoke tobacco. I often wonder if they would have the same reaction if the patients smoke pot! Yesterday, I entered an online discussion by a medical group on this subject and I’ve pasted my comment below.

The medical profession needs to apologize for letting the public down on this one – once again. In the early 1900s, although medical organizations like the AMA were against patent medicines and refused to post ads in JAMA that did not list the ingredients of the products being promoted, there were quite a few doctors who nonetheless sold and promoted the use of patent medicines, most of which were worthless elixirs of cocaine or morphine or heroin or cannabis or combinations thereof, laced with copious amounts of alcohol, coloring agents and flavorings. They were promoted as curing everything from the common cold to cancer. Although the docs knew better, they argued that they were giving their patients what they wanted and if they didn’t, the patients would buy them on the street from sidewalk vendors who were not trained healthcare professionals. Ethical?

As best we know, any “positive” effects of these nostrums came in the form of intoxication, a normal reaction to psychotropic substances, including alcohol. Therapeutic they were not. Even during alcohol prohibition (1919-1933), the federal government issued special prescriptions to physicians –only– that allowed them to prescribe “medicinal alcohol” in the form of wine, whiskey, and beer. Overnight, pharmacies became liquor stores. And doctors did, indeed, prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes and plenty of it during Prohibition. Ethical?

Fast-forward to the 1980s and 1990s and along comes the return of “medical marihuana.” This time, however, it’s not in the form of a tincture but, instead, promoted for use in its crude form as smoked marihuana. Not surprisingly, smoked pot today is touted as a cure-all for anything that ails one, from stress, to headache, to multiple sclerosis, to cancer pain and even cancer itself. How could a drug that’s so great be overlooked for so long by so many? Moreover, as in the case of alcohol prohibition, only doctors in certain states can prescribe (or recommend) it for medicinal purposes only. Ethical?

What these brief histories have in common is the promotion and use of intoxicants for therapeutic purposes. In all three cases, doctors promoted the use of these substances knowing that the anecdotal evidence of efficacy was weak at best, unsupported by unbiased clinical trial data, and not likely to improve the patient’s condition but only mask symptoms temporarily through intoxication. Incidentally, we could add tobacco to this list, too. A favorite ad of mine comes from a 1950s magazine that shows a photo of a physician holding a cigarette with a caption proclaiming that in a national survey of physicians, more preferred Camels over any other brand of cigarette. Ethical?

Wake up, America, and realize that whatever therapeutic molecules we might be able to squeeze out of the pot plant must be synthesized, purified, and manufactured to measured standards and dosing units before being used in medical treatment. Consider morphine and codeine. We don’t recommend that people grow opium poppies, harvest them, extract and chew the gum to get pain relief. Instead, we have synthesized and standardized pharmaceutically pure opiate medicines. Current pot research is underway to isolate and restructure the genetic pathways that provide pot’s psychic effect. This, scientists say, will be accomplished without interfering or reducing in any way the therapeutic properties of the beneficial cannabinoids in the plant. The final product will be safe and effective – far more effective as a medicine than smoking pot because dosing will be concentrated and stronger – and not controlled because there will be no psychotropic response.

In effect, if pot truly has medicinal benefits independent of its intoxicating effects, they should be more readily available and useful in a finished pharmaceutical form. Also, users will be spared the toxic effects of inhaling smoke. Smoking anything — paper, tobacco, dry leaves, or pot — is not good for lung tissue of any living organism. Finally, the new pot without its psychic effect can be compared to decaffeinated coffee. It will have many of the same properties of the real thing except the kick. And, let’s face it, a good cup of Starbuck’s decaf can’t be distinguished from the regular stuff.
When all this happens in a few years, pot heads now desperately trying to promote pot for everything and anything will be left with nothing but the fact that their story of pot’s medicinal history will join the other historical artifacts described above. Someday, their kids and grand-kids will look back and say the same thing that we say now when we look at those old cigarette ads from the 1950s: What were you thinking?

Source: John Coleman Drug-Watch International Feb.2010

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