Pot and Pains


April 25, 2005


Browse in Health

For a time I thought I might be in line for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the late 1980s, and a Reagan nominee — one Douglas Ginsberg, a district court judge — had just flamed out after the discovery that he had smoked marijuana with students when he was a professor at Harvard Law School. That got me thinking. If everyone in my generation who ever smoked pot was now disqualified – well, I just might be the last person standing.

I don’t say this with any sense of pride or virtue. I just never used the stuff. I’m contrary by nature, and my rebellion back then was not to join the rebellion — that part of it at least. I couldn’t stand the smugness that pot seemed to bring out in people. Plus I thought then, as I do now, that the way to get up the mountain is by foot.

That’s among other things. But my point here is that I have no axes to grind in the pot debate. I don’t favor legalizing it for what’s called “recreational” use, and I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the syrupy haze that filled the air at parties in the ’70s. The relief of pain, however, is another matter.

Montel Williams, the talk show host, recently wrote a column about his battle with Multiple Sclerosis, that has been distributed widely on the net. Williams describes the “mind-numbing pain that seared through [his] legs, as if [he] was being stabbed with hot pokers.” He describes the sleepless nights in which the pain was so bad that he cried. Doctors prescribed painkillers: Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin, which he took to near-overdose levels. He even tried morphine.

But none of them worked, and they left him so drugged-out he could barely function. He tried suicide twice. Finally he resorted to some dope before he went to sleep. “Three puffs and within minutes the excruciating pain in my legs subsided,” he recalls. “I had my first restful sleep in months.”

How can you argue with this? Whatever one might think about marijuana and the culture that surrounds it, when the question is relief of acute pain, that’s a different story. Yet Williams is a criminal in the 40 states that don’t have what are called “medical marijuana” laws; and because of the strict federal prohibition, his legal status in the others is ambiguous.

Opponents of medical marijuana cite the slippery slope. Friendly docs will prescribe pot for “social anxiety disorder” and the like. (Is there any among us who does not feel some pain?) People with prescriptions will share their legal stashes with friends. Those are genuine concerns. Lurking in the background is the argument that marijuana is a “gateway” drug, which is something I for one do not dismiss, socially if not physiologically.

The problem is, one could say pretty much the same things about legal painkillers, and other prescription drugs too. No less an eminence than Rush Limbaugh developed a much-publicized addiction to them, and joined millions of other Americans in the process. Oxycontin in particular has become a drug of choice on the black market. In Manhattan, kids bring their Ritalin to parties and snort it. Yet such drugs don’t get pulled from the market.. The schools continue to push Ritalin at kids. If the concern is “gateway” drugs, moreover, shouldn’t they be talking about cigarettes and booze.

The National Institute of Health says that in 1999, some 9 million Americans used prescription drugs for “nonmedical” reasons. That’s a lot of horsing around. On top of all this, the Food and Drug Administrarion has had to pull Vioxx and other prescription painklillers because of dangerous side effects. Yet the federal government refuses even test the medical properties of marijuana. What gives?

One suspects that something other than pure dispassionate science is involved in this decision. Let’s put the question this way. If Pfizer or Merck came up with a drug that worked as well as marijuana does for people like Montel Williams, would it encounter the obstacles in the federal government that marijuana does. More likely the drug would find its way to market, and the ads would be all over TV. The problem with marijuana is not that it doesn’t work but that it does — and nobody owns the patent rights. As Ralph Nader (in his pre-politician days) used to say about solar energy, the reason the federal government wasn’t interested was that the oil companies didn’t have a patent on the sun.

(This was one of the appeals of pot back in the ’60s and ’70s. It was something the corporate commodity culture didn’t control — a means of escape in more ways than one. A reason that general legalization gives me pause is that the tobacco companies probably would get into the game and thereby gain a second life.)

On medical marijuana the proverbial tide may be turning. Montana passed an initiative on the subject last year with 62% of the vote. Even in Texas, 75% of the people support it, according to polls, and a bill has been introduced in the state legislature with the backing of two Republican committee chairs. The issue goes right to the fault line in the Republican coalition between leave-us-alone libertarians on the one hand and run-our lives-for-us authoritarians on the other.

For the ideological theater if nothing else, it would be interesting to hear the President explain why Big Government should compel a Montel Williams to spend his days and nights in excruciating pain, when relief is at hand.