Medical marijuana

My August 18, 2015 column.
As can be expected in a country where people in positions of authority and influence make the mistake of assuming that being able to hold themselves up to a higher moral standard gives them license to assert superiority over others, the issue of legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes was bound to encounter major hurdles.  There’s a lot of stigma associated with the use of marijuana for recreational purposes that most cannot imagine how something that’s illegal, immoral, and supposedly harmful could be allowed as medicine for the sick!
Just to clarify, it must be pointed out that medical marijuana is not prescribed as a cigarette.  It’s important to point this out because there have been people who have been fulminating about the evils of allowing the sick to smoke marijuana.  Medical marijuana involves extracting oil from the herb and mixing it with food.
One of the groups behind the initiative to legalize medical marijuana, a group of mothers fighting for the rights of children with Dravet Syndrome  was even publicly ridiculed by Senator Vicente Sotto.  The senator accused the mothers of having possibly caused the medical condition of their children.  Sotto surmised that the medical condition of the kids may have been caused by the fact that their mothers probably used marijuana when they were pregnant, a sweeping accusation not only bereft of any scientific basis but also indicative of grave prejudice.  Dravet syndrome is a rare case of epilepsy that cannot be controlled by medication; there have been documented cases in the country where kids with the syndrome suffered from as high as 300 seizures a week.  Those who have witnessed someone experience an epileptic seizure knows just how physically, emotionally, and psychologically debilitating it can be; imagine what it must be like for a mother to have to see her child having a seizure almost every two hours—and then get blamed by a senator for causing the suffering on the child.
Some hospitals in the United States have been using marijuana to treat children with the syndrome; they have produced encouraging results.  Marijuana has also been used extensively as palliative measure among terminally ill patients although its use as medical treatment has remained controversial.  Many continue to oppose the initiative for ethical, moral, and even scientific reasons. 
Families of patients, particularly those who are suffering from terminal illnesses, see hope in medical marijuana, not just as possible cure but as a means to reduce the pain that patients experience.  I had a friend who had terminal cancer and who used marijuana to dull the pain. 
Many see desperation in the efforts to push for the use of medical marijuana arguing that the impetus may be driven more by emotions.  However, it is difficult to argue with those who see it as a means of managing pain and discomfort.  Even the Catholic bishops’ group, in a move that surprised many, indicated their support for the use of medical marijuana “when all other options have been explored.”  The position of the bishops which was released over the weekend was cloaked in gobbledygook, but it basically advocated compassion for those who are suffering.
One wishes our doctors had the same insight, particularly that bit about having compassion for those suffering.  The various medical associations in the country went to town last week registering their opposition to House Bill 4477, filed by Rodolfo Albano III of Isabela, which seeks to legalize the use of medical marijuana.  Our doctors basically squelched the idea on the grounds that there is not enough scientific basis for the measure.  The Philippine Medical Association said the country does not have the capacity to conduct large-scale clinical trials to determine the efficacy of medical marijuana.  There are those who see politics behind the position of the medical community—legalizing medical marijuana would have disastrous consequences to the bottomline of drug companies, which spends for most of the representational and recreational needs of doctors in this country. 
My objection to the position of the medical community, however, is based on philosophical grounds.  I’ve always thought that medical and professional associations exist primarily as thought leaders—their main job is to push the frontiers of science.  The job of professionals and associations is to go where no one else has gone, to discover new things.  Thus, it is rather incongruous for professional medical associations to take on the position that a possible cure should not be pursued because it has not been studied yet.  It’s like saying doctors in this country have no brains and scientific rigor.  I am not saying that doctors should make prescriptions and recommendations indiscriminately —all I am saying is that the answer should not be a flat out “No”; they owe it to themselves, their professions, and to science to say “let’s give the matter serious consideration.” A more proactive response is to create the impetus for more rigorous studies rather than categorically denying the initiative.
The problem with the issue of medical marijuana is that there is a lot of static that confuses and confounds; and people do get preoccupied with these, rather than focus on the core issues.  In this particular case, it is about hope and compassion for people who are terminally ill. 
Unfortunately, as has been proven many times over, there remains no cure for closed minds.


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