Time For Medical Marijuana

Commentary below is produced by the Editorial Board of the Connecticut Law Tribune. The opinions are voted on and passed by at least one third of the members of the board. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of every member of the board, nor of the newspaper.

Connecticut State Capitol Building

CONNECTICUT — The political campaign is in full swing, and candidates are making their earnest appeals to voters. What should they be talking about? Well, how about drugs!

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now authorize their residents to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. (Two of them also permit outsiders to benefit.) The laws are complex and varied, but the simple fact is that in more than 25 percent of the country, controlled marijuana use focuses on pain relief rather than incarceration.

Should Connecticut (which penalizes any use or possession with jail terms up to 10 years) now follow suit?

Research and practical applications have demonstrated that there are multiple uses for medical marijuana. Examples include the relief of nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, treatment of appetite loss often caused by AIDS and certain cancers, relief of muscle spasms that attend multiple sclerosis, and overall pain relief.

These studies also show that, used in moderation, there are relatively few harmful side effects. Advocates also argue that there are few if any prescription drugs now on the market that can replicate all of these beneficial effects without some risk of adverse consequences.

But there is hardly a consensus on this hot-button issue. Most of the opposing arguments focus on the risk of frequent or excessive use and point to loss of short-term memory, damage to lung tissue, and impairment leading to automobile and workplace accidents. And controlled experiments and widespread clinical trials have been limited since marijuana continues to be a prohibited “Schedule 1” drug under federal law although that law is not currently being enforced with respect to medicinal uses.

All right, so you are now a candidate for election in the Connecticut Senate or House of Representatives. You are participating in a debate, and the question arises, “Do you favor adoption of a law that would decriminalize marijuana for limited medical purposes?” Aware of the above arguments, how do you respond?

Note that many of the “con” arguments point to the risk of inappropriate use, not use per se. In a medical setting, with physician supervision, that risk can probably be usefully controlled. Moreover, states that have authorized medicinal use typically restrict possession to very small amounts – typically ranging from one to three ounces. They all require ID cards to document the patient’s eligibility for such use.

Bolstered by these arguments, and the experience of other jurisdictions throughout the country in authorizing medical marijuana, you may be persuaded to support such legislation in the next session of the General Assembly and respond positively to the question.

But then your opponent raises other issues that would lead her to vote the other way. Marijuana, she may argue, is a gateway drug to other more dangerous drug use. Even limited legalization would lead to a greater likelihood of the drug falling into unauthorized hands – particularly children of medicated patients. And, she might also argue, there are moral issues involved with this drug that override any incidental benefits from its use.

The gateway argument does not seem to hold up under close analysis. It is true that persons oriented to drug use will often start with marijuana before moving to more dangerous drugs, but in states adopting medical marijuana legislation there appears to be little incidence of patients on that drug “graduating” to other illegal drugs.

Similarly, there is little evidence from these states that medical marijuana users are letting their drug possessions fall into the hands of their children or other unauthorized users. And, as to the “moral issues,” one might counter that to deny the use of this pain-relieving drug to needy patients is itself morally reprehensible.

A final argument from the con side: Legislative approval of even limited marijuana use will inevitably increase the pressures to legalize other drugs where no medical justification for their use exists. Again, there is no evidence that this has yet happened in the 14 states that have approved medicinal use of marijuana – some of which have had their laws on the books for over ten years. In any event, there may well be legitimate reasons to support some de-regulation, but that argument is for another time.

Hopefully, the coming election debates will focus on legalizing medical marijuana use, thereby allowing the issues to be fully aired before the public. Whether they do or don’t, the arguments for some form of authorization seem compelling enough for the General Assembly and the new governor to seriously consider the topic in their 2011 legislative session. Ideally, the federal government would do the same.

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