Diverse opinions, laws, and research, as well as the varying positions of politicians, physicians, advocates, activists, and governmental agencies, like a cloud of pot smoke in a college dorm room, have obscured what’s at the core of the medical marijuana issue, which is: Does marijuana ease the suffering of people with certain medical conditions?
The problem is we don’t know for sure, and because of that a rat’s nest of red tape has ensnared suffering people in Pennsylvania seeking relief from their symptoms for years. With the passage of Pennsylvania ACT 16 in April 2016, the unraveling of this red tape may be about to commence.
The Catch-22 of Medical Marijuana
There are several snags that have held up the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania and often in other states as well. The first is the federal government. Although marijuana has been used medicinally for centuries all over the world, it was in 1970 that the federal government classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, joining such established addictive drugs as opium, LSD, morphine, and heroin, on the list and deeming it “as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”
Since marijuana has been classified as having no medicinal value, little research has been done on its efficacy, and that lack of research, in a Catch-22 type of scenario, has made it suspect by the FDA for use as a medicine. As we all know, drugs go through rigorous testing before acquiring FDA approval and medical marijuana lacks that.
Although there has been more research in marijuana’s use recently, the results haven’t been conclusive, resulting in even medical professionals coming down on different sides of the issue. The Pennsylvania Medical Society opposed its use citing the lack of clinical research as the reason, while the Pennsylvania Nurses Association favored legalizing medical marijuana and believes it should be reclassified as a Schedule II drug. At the national level, politicians and physicians are all over the board on its legalization. In fact, the two U.S. Surgeons General appointed by President Clinton, David Satcher and Jocelyn Elders, couldn’t agree on its legalization.
State vs Federal
Even though the state has legalized medical marijuana, it is still not legal under federal law, which is worrisome. However, the federal government cannot force state and local authorities to enforce federal laws. Currently, there are nearly two dozen states that have legalized medical marijuana, and so far there have been no known cases of the federal government prosecuting anyone for possessing medical marijuana. Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Health made temporary provision for parents, spouses, legal guardians, and caregivers to apply for a Safe Harbor Letter, which will allow them to administer and possess medical marijuana obtained from outside Pennsylvania, because although it is now legal in the state, it will be at least 18-24 months before Pennsylvania will have the licensed growers, processors, and dispensaries up and running as well as educating physicians about the new regulations. This letter will need to be carried whenever the medical marijuana is taken outside of the home.
Getting High or Getting Help
While some see legalizing medical marijuana as a step toward legalizing its use for everyone, as the law stands, it only allows those with documented conditions to use it, making the risk for abuse rather low. Patients wanting to use medical marijuana will need a certification from a physician registered with the Department of Health. Only those who suffer from the following 17 medical conditions will be eligible to receive medical marijuana:
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
- Crohn’s Disease
- Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
- HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) / AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
- Huntington’s Disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome
- Intractable Seizures
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective
- Sickle Cell Anemia
And don’t look for any Cheech and Chong type of Up in Smoke movie scenes anytime soon. Patients will not be able to smoke the marijuana; the only authorized forms of medical marijuana are “pill, oil, tincture or liquid; in a topical form, such as a gel, cream or ointment; or in a form medically appropriate for vaporization or nebulization.”
The state will issue licenses for up to 25 growers and processors and 50 dispensaries and all will be held under close supervision.
Do No Harm
Physicians take an oath to treat and help patients and in essence do no harm. For a child having numerous seizures a day and who finds some relief in a pill derived from marijuana or for the teen suffering from nausea due to chemotherapy and who finds some relief from vomiting from marijuana oil, or for the man paralyzed from ALS who finds some relief from muscle spasticity from marijuana ointment, it’s hard see any plausible reason to deny them this ray of hope. In fact, to deny them the relief they seek seems harmful if not cruel.