Opinion and Forefront

MYERS: A boardwalk view of medicinal marijuana

April 23, 2011

Woodrow MyersThere are some things you have to see with your own eyes to believe. A few weeks ago while on a business trip to L.A., I took some time off and headed to the beach—Venice Beach. It’s not far from LAX and has a long boardwalk where they sell everything—T-shirts, posters, fruit-juice smoothies and, now, marijuana.

There were, right on the boardwalk, at least three “walk-in clinics” with people holding signs and soliciting “patients” to come in for an “evaluation,” which translates to “tell us your health care complaint and we’ll give you a prescription for marijuana you can conveniently fill right here.”

The atmosphere was much like the midway at the state fair, complete with carnival barkers who instead of guessing your weight or providing darts to throw at balloons hustle you into the “doctor’s office” where virtually any diagnosis leads to a “prescription” for the FDA-unapproved “Sour Diesel,” which “provides a fast-acting, dream high, great to relax and relieve stress” or “Granddaddy Purple,” complete with the recipe for inclusion in freshly baked oatmeal cookies.

The arguments for legalization have been centered on the rights of “patients” to access all available therapies, and the alleged failures of legal and available prescription drugs to relieve symptoms related to cancer chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. Some even argue that legalization is a good way in these difficult economic times for states to increase sales taxes.

At least a dozen states have laws legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. The people of California voted to pass the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which states that people have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician.

Therefore, in California, it is relatively easy to access high grade (very potent) marijuana under the guise of medical therapy, even when there are over 30 approved drugs known to be effective in chemotherapy-induced nausea. There also are a number of safe and effective appetite stimulants for patients with AIDS, cancer and other diseases (some of which are chemical “cousins” to the active ingredient in marijuana).

The FDA has not found marijuana safe or effective for anything. Yet in California, under local ordinance and state law, it is legal, even though the state has no mechanisms to evaluate potency or contamination or adulteration with other substances (like phencyclidine—better known as PCP). While under federal law it is not legal, enforcement has not been high enough on the list of priorities.

The overwhelming majority of practicing physicians will tell you they do not need (or want) to prescribe marijuana to help their patients. We have seen and cared for patients who have let it destroy their lives and their futures.

Proponents of legalization don’t have a good response to the inability of government to police the multiple points of sale and distribution. In fact, I suspect they count on it to ease the fears of “customers” who know they really don’t have a “diagnosis” and just want to use the drug for recreational purposes.

They also don’t have a good argument on how to prevent what I witnessed—the barker on the Venice Beach boardwalk who approached a 14-year-old boy and asked if he’d like to try it. All he had to do was come inside the clinic.

This is not medicine. This is not therapy. Government has the obligation to protect the public from dangerous and unapproved substances. Government has the obligation to protect children from those who would exploit their curiosity for profit.

There are some things in California (like the abundant sunshine) I’d like to import to Indiana. The legal sale of a dangerous drug under the guise of medical therapy is not one of them.•

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Myers is a former chief medical officer for WellPoint Inc. and served as health commissioner for Indiana and New York City. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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