March 22, 1999

A Drug War Against the Sick


A Government-commissioned panel of experts reported last week that there had been "an explosion of new scientific knowledge" on the medical uses of marijuana. The chemicals in marijuana, they concluded, can fight the nausea induced by chemotherapy, boost the appetites of AIDS patients and ameliorate some symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The report was no news to me. I had reached the same conclusions as a cancer patient, seven years ago.

In 1992 I was found to have testicular cancer. My chemotherapy put me in the hospital for five days at a time, once a month, for four months. But midway through my treatment I could tell that Zofran, then a hot new drug prescribed to combat nausea, was losing its effect. For the remainder of my chemotherapy I turned to marijuana to keep my head out of the toilet.

None of the doctors or nurses at the hospitals I went to for treatment (New York University Medical Center) or consultation (Memorial Sloan-Kettering) discouraged me from using marijuana should the need arise. They said they had patients who had benefited from it when other drugs had failed. But none of them could prescribe it, because using marijuana was a crime -- and remains so, despite half a dozen state referendums since 1992 urging that it be legalized for medical use. Federal laws still ban marijuana as stringently as heroin.

Not that I was ever at much risk of arrest. As a member of the media elite, I was not a likely target for a drug bust, and living in Manhattan, I could acquire what I needed under the cover of urban anonymity. But people in less privileged professions, or from different ZIP codes, do get into trouble when buying or growing marijuana for medical purposes. Unequal enforcement is a sign of bad law.

The experts' report raised serious questions about the toxicity of marijuana smoke. But many medicines are toxic. The relevant question is, toxic compared to what? The chemicals in chemotherapy are dangerous; so is radiation; so are the drugs in AIDS cocktails. An AIDS patient facing starvation might well be willing to damage his lungs instead. Further work should be done on alternative delivery systems, like inhalers and patches. But in the meantime there are sick people who could use relief now.

Polemicists in the war on drugs fear that acknowledging marijuana's medical efficacy would set a bad example. Then why don't we take morphine out of hospital medicine cabinets? There is also little risk of inducing bad habits in patients. Using marijuana medically is the ultimate aversion therapy, forever linking the plant to hospital smells and IV poles.

In almost every case when the medical use of marijuana has been put on a ballot, it has been approved by voters. Supporters have been as diverse as the rainwater liberals of Oregon and the cowboy libertarians of Arizona. We will probably discover that the District of Columbia approved an initiative last fall, too, if Congress allows the votes to be counted. On this issue, voters have shown that they are more mature than the political class.

For obvious reasons, there has been no leadership on this issue from President Clinton, who began his career of evasion at the national level by telling us he didn't inhale. Conservative Republicans, my ideological soulmates, have also been woefully stubborn. They hammered Hillary Clinton's health care plan because it would come between doctors and patients, yet they support Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey and the Office of National Drug Control Policy when they do the same thing. Support for medical marijuana is not an exception to conservative principles but an extension of them.

My chemotherapy worked, and I haven't smoked during the entire Clinton Administration. But should I ever need to turn to marijuana again, I'd like to be able to do so without the added burden of breaking the law.

Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor of National Review, is the author of "Alexander Hamilton, American."