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Medical marijuana documentary sparks bigger debate


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Grass, pot, weed, bud, dope, cannabis - it's a drug with many names. In some cultures it is considered a portal to another realm of consciousness, and vilified in others as a gateway drug to a life of addiction. But treatment for symptoms of diseases like AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis and other neurological disorders? Can it be that this illegal party drug is...a cure?

The film

These are questions the documentary "Waiting to Inhale" explores. From a brief history of marijuana through its current status as an illegal substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the film looks at benefits the drug may have that have long been overlooked.

The documentary, currently screening across North America, met with cheers from the audience at Roosevelt University last Thursday evening. With interviews of doctors, patients, marijuana growers, advocates, opponents, and government officials, the documentary goes beyond a pro-drug propaganda piece. It becomes a convincing argument for how pot can help those in pain who have explored every pharmaceutical drug available.

The cycle

An overarching theme of the documentary is the current catch-22 for medical marijuana. It is classified as a schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, labeled as having a high potential for abuse and no current accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S.

As a schedule 1 substance, cannabis can be researched only with federal approval and using a supply provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This government monopoly on access to marijuana for medical testing has made clinical trials next to impossible to get off the ground. Because clinical trials are not undertaken, it is difficult to prove that marijuana could have beneficial properties. And so the cycle continues.

The panel

A panel of experts and patients led by the film's director, Jed Riffe, convened after the screening to discuss medical marijuana's status in limbo.

The patient

The non-profit marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, estimates that 300,000 Americans use medical marijuana. Marijuana has become a treatment for those suffering pain from MS, nausea and loss of appetite from AIDS, spasms from neurological disorders and many other ailments that have no set cure. Medical marijuana users report fewer side effects than those associated with legal prescription medications.

Panelist Julie Falco, a patient suffering from MS, described years of pain and frustration trying every pharmaceutical treatment available, most of which made her worse.

"Every time I took a medication, it was just so severe and depressing and discouraging that nothing was working." Falco started using cannabis in 2004, ingesting it three times daily, and it alleviated the symptoms of her illness to such an extent that she is no longer on any other medication.

"This is the drug that works for me," she said, even though her treatment of choice is currently illegal.

The doctor

Dr. Bruce Doblin, an internist and medical ethicist in Chicago, described the difficulty physicians face when patients could be helped by marijuana, but doctors are unable to prescribe it.

"The frustrating thing about being a physician is that you take an oath dedicated to help people. There's something right out there and it's not available. What is available are a lot of pain medications that have all sorts of complications — those are very available, but complicated to take and complicated to prescribe."

A U.S. Department of Justice-appointed judge ruled in May that the DEA end its forty-year government monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana available for Food and Drug Administration-approved studies. With the monopoly broken, new medical studies could lead to accepted medical proof that marijuana has benefits in treatment.

This is good news for physicians, but may not be the lynchpin needed to legalize medical marijuana across the U.S. For Doblin, the current status of medical marijuana as a banned substance is not based on its unproven effectiveness in medicine. "There's decades of good experience showing that medical cannabis works. There's really no debate about whether it works or not."

The law

James Gierach is a former Cook County prosecutor and current member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a non-profit organization of criminal justice professionals advocating the end of drug prohibition.

Gierach described his former viewpoint that drug use was akin to violence, and he prosecuted offenders to the full extent of the law. But, over the years, after "seeing what the drug was has done for us," he changed his mind.

"The war on drugs not only doesn't accomplish what it is designed to do - to keep drugs away from young people and save them - it is the heart of nearly any crisis that you can name in America." Gierach listed issues such as guns, gangs, crime, health care and funding for terrorism as such problems enhanced by prohibition, and stated that "the good guys are on the same side as the drug dealers, and the reason is economics."

Gierach argued that the underground market for drugs drastically increases their value, to the point that marijuana has more value than gold. Legalizing the drug would remove the economic benefit and make it easier to regulate.

"We must as a nation start discussing the harm that's being done by the war on drugs, even though it was intended as an altruistic program to save our kids," Gierach said.

The politics

Lobbyist John Walker echoed this sentiment, and asked the audience if they were angry in the wake of the documentary screening. He requested that they channel that anger into action, and that they petition Congress to pass legislation legalizing the use of medical marijuana. "We're at a tipping point...we are going to pass a medical marijuana bill here in Illinois this year. We've got to."

Source: Medill
Copyright: 2001 - 2007 Medill Reports
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