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R: PHX, S: FEATURES, D: 10/01/1998, B: >, A: >,

Healing herb

The medical benefits of marijuana are clear. Why won't the government listen?

Marijuana is a provocative plant. To some, including many of the participants in Saturday's "Freedom Fest" on Boston Common, it represents the ethic of human liberation. To others it represents the spirit of self-indulgence, bad echoes of 1960s radicalism.

All this rich symbolism, though, creates a real problem. Precious few politicians seem able to discuss marijuana policy with anything approaching rationality. And this means that many thousands of patients whose lives could be substantially improved, and in some cases saved, must instead suffer.

It is by now quite clear that marijuana has real medical value. Cancer patients who must undergo chemotherapy often experience horrible nausea. For some, the side effects are so bad that the life-saving treatment has to be stopped. But marijuana has been shown to have powerful antinausea properties. Indeed, one 1990 survey found that 44 percent of oncologists polled had recommended the drug at least once; almost half said they would prescribe it if it were legal. Marijuana can also help AIDS patients with the nausea and potentially devastating loss of appetite that many experience. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that marijuana helps glaucoma patients, too. There are also intriguing suggestions, based on strong anecdotal evidence, that the drug could be useful in controlling pain and in treating the spasms that accompany multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, paraplegia, and quadriplegia.

Last year, the respected New England Journal of Medicine editorialized that "research should go on, and while it does, marijuana should be available to all patients who need it to help them undergo treatment for life-threatening illnesses."

Yet the federal government has viewed these discoveries as problems, as unfortunate facts. Indeed, as patients, doctors, and even some state governments have tried to find a way to reap the potential medical benefits of marijuana, Washington has done everything it can to get in the way. The federal government, which controls the nation's only legal supply of marijuana, has made it virtually impossible for researchers to get access to the drug. Last year, after California and Arizona voters approved medical-marijuana initiatives, the Clinton White House announced that federal authorities would push to revoke the licenses of any doctors who recommended marijuana to their patients.

This is all part of the deeply flawed strategy of drug "education" that is a pillar of the war on drugs. The party line is simple: all drugs are bad, no exceptions. Yet the zero-tolerance approach can easily backfire. If a teen tries the demon weed and survives, why should he believe the warnings about heroin? Mood-altering substances -- be they caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco -- are a deeply rooted part of society, and any strategy to reduce drug abuse must first confront this fact.

Until then, the nation will be stuck with an approach to drug policy that clearly doesn't work -- that, in fact, doesn't make sense. Why, suffering patients want to know, can't they have access to a drug that doctors know will help them? Because it's illegal. That's not an answer -- it's a challenge.


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