State needs to get past fear of medical marijuana

Imagine having over 300 seizures a week. And imagine that the only medicine that can stop them is il

Imagine having over 300 seizures a week. And imagine that the only medicine that can stop them is illegal. Would you break the law?

Marijuana, it turns out, is highly effective in combatting certain forms of epilepsy, as discovered by Charlotte Figi, a Colorado girl born in 2006 with Dravet syndrome — a severe seizure disorder that was so bad she could barely function. Her parents tried myriad medicines — all to no avail — until they arrived at their last resort: medical marijuana.

At age 5, she began taking a form of medical marijuana low in THC (what gets you high) and high in cannabidiol (the medicine) and promptly saw a reduction from 300 seizures a week to just four per month.

In New York, however, that option would not have been available to Charlotte. In New York, Charlotte would have had 45,000 more seizures, if they didn’t kill her first. But in Colorado, medical marijuana very likely saved her life.

Medical marijuana isn’t only useful for preventing seizures. The drug has been shown to be remarkably helpful in fighting things like chronic pain, as well as nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The research even shows marijuana might have some effectiveness in treating HIV/AIDS symptoms (like anorexia) or a whole host of mental illnesses (like bipolar disorder). The prohibition on the substance, unfortunately, has hampered research efforts to determine more conclusively whether pot could be an effective treatment.

It looks as though we are about to get medical marijuana in New York state. Negotiations got a little off course. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated that he wasn’t going to sign a medical marijuana bill because it allowed for the smoking of marijuana acquired under the legislation.

I can only assume that he is in favor of pills or vaporizers here (rather than pot brownies) as a delivery form. But these forms of consumption are generally considered to be less effective in delivering the drug to patients than the preferred option — smoking. Cuomo’s position? Allowing this would undercut the state’s recent anti-smoking efforts.

Granted, anti-smoking efforts are certainly a noble initiative, even if they are primarily targeting tobacco, not pot. In any case, we shouldn’t have more people smoking. I don’t want society to devolve into a cannabis-fueled pizza lounge party. But I also don’t want the fear of people smoking pot — a relatively harmless act if done in moderation, and certainly less harmful than alcohol — to prevent those patients who need access to the drug from getting help from it.

Opponents argue that legalizing marijuana for medical use will be a de facto blanket legalization. Even if, they argue, limitations are put on who can acquire and use it, there will be some people who cheat the system to acquire pot or who then sell what they’ve gotten for profit.

The flaw in this thinking is fairly obvious: You can buy Sudafed at the store even though it can be used for making crystal meth. In fact, you can look no further than alcohol, where limitations, specifically age limitations, are put on who can purchase and consume it. We aren’t about to go back to the days of Prohibition just because some under-21s are able to find a way to get beer at the store. What we do is we enforce the laws and punish the lawbreakers. We don’t throw up our hands and ban all alcohol sales.

What makes this state of affairs even more absurd is that given the standard of legality set by alcohol and tobacco, marijuana should fall in the category of substances available for personal use. After all, marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and is unquestionably safer than tobacco as far as long-term health is concerned.

The key point: The proponents of medical marijuana aren’t even going that far. They’re arguing for availability only in case of medical need. You know, so epilepsy patients don’t have 35 seizures a day. Or so chemo patients can stop vomiting and start eating.

Let’s table the discussion on whether or not marijuana legalization is good for society as a whole. Let’s instead accept whatever marginal misappropriation of medical marijuana might occur, and give all Charlottes a chance to live a normal life. If doctors and patients agree that medical marijuana is the best option for an ailment like cancer or epilepsy, no one should stand in the way.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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