Also in Health and Wellness
How Bush's Flawed Health Care Policies Are Gaining Traction
The Pentagon Is America's Biggest Polluter
The Healing Power of Pets
Does America Have a Prescription Drug Problem?
The following is an excerpt from "Dying to Get High" by Wendy Chapkis and Richard J. Webb (NYU Press, 2008). (c) 2008 NYU Press. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
For many modern critics, the concept of "medical marijuana" is a contradiction in terms. Medicine is standardized, synthetic, and pure; marijuana involves the unrefined and promiscuous coupling of more than four hundred components rooted in the dirt. Medicine -- in its most powerful and privileged forms -- rests in the hands of men, while the most potent form of marijuana is found in the female flowering plant. Medicine engages in heroic battles against death. Marijuana claims only to enhance the quality of life.
Medicine presents itself as an objective science safeguarded by the ritual of the double-blind, randomized clinical trial. The therapeutic value of marijuana relies largely on the "soft science" of subjective experience and anecdotal evidence. From the perspective of its critics, then, cannabis is an effeminate interloper in the masculine world of real medicine, a dangerous drug pushed on a credulous public by illegitimate quacks.
But this story is too simple. The line separating regular doctors from snake oil salesmen, good drugs from bad, is as much the product of politics as it is of science. The dominance of politics in determining the value of marijuana as a medicine was first demonstrated in the 1930s when the federal government began to restrict the medical use of marijuana, against the recommendations of the American Medical Association (AMA).
The struggle between politics and science over the use of cannabis as a medicine continues. In the final decade of the twentieth century, the federal government threatened physicians with the loss of their license for recommending marijuana to patients, made criminals of patients who followed their doctor's advice, and actively blocked scientific research into the therapeutic value of cannabis, while insisting that it was an established scientific fact that marijuana is not a medicine.
During the opening of a 2004 congressional hearing on medical marijuana, this ongoing battle over cannabis was described by committee chair Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) as a critical front in the War on Drugs and consistent with the modernization of medicine:
This hearing will address a controversial topic, the use of marijuana for so-called medicinal purposes. In recent years, a large and well-funded pro-drug movement has succeeded in convincing many Americans that marijuana is a true medicine to be used in treating a wide variety of illnesses .... Marijuana was once used as a folk remedy in many primitive cultures, and even in the 19th century was frequently used by some American doctors, much as alcohol, cocaine, and heroin were once used by doctors. By the 20th century, however, its use by legitimate medical practitioners has dwindled, while its illegitimate use as a recreational drug has risen.
Souder thus sets the stage for a morality tale populated by primitive practitioners and legitimate doctors, dangerous drug fiends and decent drug warriors.
Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly invoked a similar cast of characters in his 2004 discussion of medical marijuana with U.S. Deputy "Drug Czar" Dr. Andrea Barthwell. That year, voters in Oregon were to be presented with a ballot measure to amend their state's already-existing medical marijuana law. The proposed amendment (which ultimately failed) was intended both to increase the amount of marijuana a patient could have over the course of a year and to redefine which health professionals could legally recommend marijuana for medical use.
O'Reilly scoffed at the idea that licensed health practitioners other than physicians might be authorized to recommend the use of cannabis to their patients: "Even a shaman could grant permission for you to toke in Oregon. I mean, this is, you know, any health practitioner. So you're a shaman from the Amazon and you set up shop. Come on, I mean, everybody knows this is a ruse. Am I wrong?" Andrea Barthwell confirmed for viewers that O'Reilly's concerns were quite legitimate: "No, you're absolutely right, Bill. This is what we've been trying to make clear to people when they have these proposals presented to them. This is not about getting medicine to people who are sick and dying. This is about making marijuana legal."
Wendy Chapkis and Richard J. Webb are the authors of "Dying to Get High" by (NYU Press, 2008).