Should Marijuana be Legalized for Medical Purposes?

Marijuana has been used extensively as a medical remedy for more than
five thousand years. In the early 1900s, medical usage of marijuana began to
decline with the advent of alternative drugs. Injectable opiates and synthetic
drugs such as aspirin and barbiturates began to replace marijuana as the
physician's drug of choice in the twentieth-century, as their results proved to
be more consistent than the sometimes erratic effects of the hard-to-dose
potencies of marijuana (Grinspoon). The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made cannabis
so expensive to obtain that its usage as a medical remedy in the U.S. came to a
halt. Although now illegal in the U.S., marijuana continues to be used for both
medical and recreational purposes by many Americans. There are a variety of
opinions both for and against the re-legalization of marijuana today. Perhaps
the most controversial aspect of the legalization debate is whether marijuana
should be legalized for medical purposes.
All drugs, both prescription and non-prescription, are federally
'Scheduled' by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). A drug's scheduling under
Federal law is determined “according to [its] effects, medical uses, and
potential for abuse” (Claim V). In this classification system, marijuana is a
Schedule I drug, grouped with heroin, LSD, hashish, methaqualone, and designer
drugs. These are drugs having “unpredictable effects, and [causing] severe
psychological or physical dependence, or death” (Claim V).
A closer analysis of the DEA's Federal Scheduling system reveals that,
according to various studies by physicians on both sides of the legalization
debate, marijuana does not meet the requirements of a Schedule I drug, but not
those of Schedule II. The difference between the two classes is that Schedule
I drugs may lead to death, while those on Schedule II are less likely to do so.
Proponents of legalization cite information that indicates marijuana is a
relatively “safe” drug. “There is no known case of overdose; on the basis of
animal models, the ratio of lethal to effective dose is 40,000 to 1” (Grinspoon).
Even some opponents of marijuana legalization support reclassification. Two
physicians, in a widely distributed opinions piece entitled “Marijuana Smoking
as Medicine: A Cruel Hoax”, wrote; “While the reclassification of THC to
Schedule II might be understandable, this would not be the result of smoking the
crude drug marijuana, which would as a result become more available and more
readily diverted for non-medical use” (Nahas). Although this evidence clearly
does not support the legalization of marijuana, it highlights one of many
discrepancies that cloud this smoky debate.
Lester Grinspoon, MD, is a proponent of the medical legalization and re-
classification of marijuana. In the Journal of the American Medical Association,
Dr. Grinspoon wrote an article entitled “A Plea for Reconsideration”. In this
plea, Grinspoon suggests that marijuana should be reclassified to a Schedule II
class drug, so that it might be legally prescribed. He writes:

In a 1990 survey, 44% of oncologists said they had suggested
that a patient smoke marihuana for relief of the nausea
induced by chemotherapy. If marihuana were actually unsafe
for use under medical supervision, as its Schedule I status
explicitly affirms, this recommendation would be unthinkable.
It is time for physicians to acknowledge more openly that
this present classification is scientifically, legally, and
morally wrong. (Grinspoon)

Like many other physicians fighting for the re-classification of marijuana, Dr.
Grinspoon makes claims only towards the drug's medical benefits. However, their
rhetoric in calling the issue “morally wrong” suggests that they may have other
motives as well.
Furthermore, the fact that “44% of oncologists” suggested their patients
use marijuana, despite its illegality, may suggest that many of these physicians
have little respect for post-prohibition laws. The article also fails to address
the negative side-effects of marijuana that result from smoking the plant.
While there are many physicians who support the reclassification (and,
sometimes, legalization) of marijuana, still others make different claims. In
July of 1995, one month after “Marijuana as Medicine- A Plea for Reconsideration”
was published in JAMA, the Department of Health and Human Services held its
first research conference on marijuana. At this conference, several respected
physicians noted that “marijuana use during pregnancy has harmful effects on
children's intellectual abilities... compulsive marijuana use may lead to an
addiction similar to that of other illicit drugs...” (Claim V); and, finally,
that “marijuana use can put a serious choke-hold on users who try to quit”
(Claim V). Conflicting reports, such as these, are at the center of the smoke
filled battle concerning medical legalization. In this case, the physicians
assembled at the conference commented only on the drug's