The not-so-high times on medical cannabis

Michael Swickard, Ph.D.

© 2011 

Guest commentary

“What are you, people? On dope?” — Oft quoted line from 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High

There are parts of the medical cannabis debate that the media never seems to cover. While it is very complex, I want to address some of the issues. The use of medical cannabis is often portrayed by opponents with a wink and a smile as if people are getting away with something. They are not sick; they just want to get high.

Correction: the majority of people who are attracted to medical cannabis are not pulling a fast one on society. This substance may be their only relief. Without it they will just have to suffer. I say this without a “dog in the fight.” I do not and have not used marijuana nor do I want to use it. But I have had cancer.

In 1996 I heard the chilling words, “Michael, you have cancer. We must operate immediately.” Luckily, while I endured a long operation and radiation, I did not require chemotherapy, which might have been even more obnoxious. But it was a physical tussle, and I feel for those who now suffer.

Fast forward to today, where there is a brisk debate about what patients in several categories may find helpful in their quest to endure that which is somewhat unendurable. There is pain that modern pharmacology does not alleviate. Likewise, there are other conditions that do not respond well to conventional treatments. Some patients find medical cannabis does give relief.

There are three major problems with using medical cannabis: first, there is not clarity as to the difference between current street drugs illegally for sale and medical cannabis. Second, the use of medical cannabis, while legal in some states, is not legal nationally. A person can be both legal and illegal at exactly the same moment. Finally, there are questions as to the proof of beneficial effects.

Point No. 1: In general, medical cannabis is not intended to get patients high. In fact, that is not at all what is wanted by most patients because then those patients cannot drive or go to work. It is important to realize that habitual users of medical cannabis must also continue their life.

Know this: there are two main varieties of cannabis: sativa and indica and each have medicinal qualities. They are seriously different, though. What many people who are looking for relief seek are the cannabinoids rather than the compound, tetrahydrocannabinol abbreviated as THC. Often, street marijuana is loaded with THC to produce the high but has little of the important cannabinoids for people with chemotherapy nausea.

Most media attention about medical cannabis seems to proclaim that all cannabis is exactly the same, and those using medical cannabis are using the same substance as is sold illegally on street corners. This is simply not so. In fact, medical cannabis is more expensive than street marijuana.

The second point we must address is that the use of medical cannabis is legal and illegal at exactly the same moment. In a nation of laws, this is unacceptable to have an action by a person to be legal and illegal at exactly the same moment. It haunts the notion of a nation of laws.

Finally, we have the controversy that medical cannabis provides actual relief not available by traditional pharmacological substances or not. There are some studies that provide results to both conclusions. In my conversations with quite a few people who use medical cannabis I have received their testimony that nothing provided relief until they got medical cannabis. This includes street marijuana which, again, is a different variety.

Medical cannabis is a political football about politics and not about medical relief. Politicians are afraid of the subject because to embrace medical cannabis is considered a political liability. Look at what happened to presidential contender former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who opined the drug war was not working and so a new approach is appropriate.

He can never be president with a relaxed view of illegal drugs. An anti-cannabis stance is unfortunate because it needlessly condemns some people to a very unpleasant ending of their life without the relief of medical cannabis. Repeat, needlessly.

Dr. Michael Swickard is co-host of radio talk show News New Mexico 6 to 9 a.m. Monday – Friday on a number of New Mexico radio stations and through streaming. Email:

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