Pubdate: Tue, 17 Mar 2009
Source: Belleville News-Democrat (IL)
Copyright: 2009 Belleville News-Democrat
Author: Marshall Brain


At this exact moment in American history, we find ourselves at a very
interesting juncture. Near the center of that juncture is marijuana.

On the one hand we have a large group of people in the United States,
backed by current federal law, who believe that marijuana is a vile,
pernicious drug that  should be suppressed at all costs. And right now
the  costs are extremely high. There are the costs of law 
enforcement, imprisonment of users, international interdiction, drug
crime, lost tax revenues, etc. There is also collateral damage like
the ban on hemp, which  would otherwise be an environmentally friendly
way to  produce natural fibers.

On the other hand we have a group of people who believe that
marijuana is no different from alcohol, and should be legal just like
alcohol. Their point of view is getting a hearing right now because
of the recession. The legalization and subsequent taxation of
marijuana  would generate a lot of revenue. And it would also 
eliminate many of the aforementioned costs. The combination could
help out cash-strapped cities and states.

Sitting somewhere between these two warring factions is medical
marijuana. The goal of medical marijuana is to use of the primary
active ingredient in marijuana (THC) and other compounds found in
cannabis for legitimate  medical therapies. Let's take a look at how
these therapies work.

The best known use of medical marijuana is for the treatment of
chemotherapy side effects. Chemotherapy drugs work by killing rapidly
dividing cells like cancer cells. Unfortunately, tissues in the
intestinal  tract divide rapidly as well. This effect (along with 
other problems associated with chemotherapy) leads to nausea and
vomiting. THC has a calming effect on the stomach.

Another side effect of chemotherapy, as well as cancer in general and
many wasting diseases, is a loss of appetite and subsequent weight
loss. THC has a well-known effect on the appetite known colloquially
as  "the munchies". People who use medical marijuana often depend on
the munchies to avoid wasting away.

You might be wondering why marijuana would cause people to eat. It's
because THC mimics a neurotransmitter in the brain, and this
neurotransmitter happens to play an important role in hunger.

Medical marijuana can also help with glaucoma, a  disease which leads
to excess pressure inside the eye. This pressure is dangerous because
it eventually  damages the retina, causing blindness. THC has been 
shown to reduce the pressure, although the effect is short-term.

There is also pain relief. The use of marijuana to ease pain preceded
the use of aspirin. In certain conditions, marijuana is very
effective because it  reduces inflammation and relaxes the patient.

All these therapeutic uses are great. The problem with medical
marijuana from a medical perspective is the traditional method of
delivery. Doctors are not crazy about smoking. Therefore, scientists
have been working  on ways to isolate and deliver the beneficial
compounds  found in marijuana. There are now several pill forms of 
THC, as well as a THC inhaler that delivers the drug through the
lungs without the smoke. The advantage of inhaling the drug is that
people with severe nausea can't keep down a pill.

The problem for patients has been the whole legal and law-enforcement
environment around marijuana. Only a few states recognize marijuana
as a medicine, and even in those states, people using marijuana for
legitimate  medicinal purposes can run into problems.

So what will happen with marijuana, both medical and recreational, in
the future? It is hard to say. Like many other lightning-rod topics
in our culture (gay  marriage, guns, abortion and immigration all come
to  mind), the process of reaching a societal consensus can  be
lengthy. It is true that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol
or cigarettes, and it is true  that revenue and reduced enforcement
costs from its  legalization would create billions of extra dollars
for  cities and states to spend wisely. It will be  interesting to see
whether legalization happens and, if  so, how long it would take.

(Looking for more? For extra info on this or the scoop  on other
fascinating topics, go to  Contact Marshall
Brain, founder of HowStuffWorks, at   ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin