By Heather Millar
I grew up in San Francisco in the late 1960s and 1970s, not even two miles from the famously groovy Haight-Ashbury. Even today, in that neighborhood, you’d think the counter-culture never ended: marijuana smoke often wafts down streets full of skateboard-toting people in tie-dye and dreadlocks.
Strangely, considering this background, I’ve never been a pothead. Then, I got breast cancer. I clearly remember, not long after diagnosis, attending a street fair and walking by a medical marijuana tent. A super mellow dude behind the table handed me a little green “pot holder.” No, it was not the kind you use in the kitchen. Who knows, I thought, maybe this will help during chemo.
Serious personal crises demand an open mind.
At this same time, late 2010, huge debates were going on about medical marijuana dispensaries in California, especially in the city of San Jose, which was debating the shut down medical marijuana outlets.
This debate continues today: The city of San Leandro last month banned medical marijuana dispensaries for a year. Just north, in Richmond, a marijuana collective owner asked for an apology from a city councilman who called him irresponsible and blamed the dispensary for a 2011 shooting.
As more and more states legalize marijuana for medical use, you can find similar headlines almost every week.
The usual arguments against medical marijuana are these, as I understand it:
1) Those people aren’t really sick. They’re just saying that so they can get high.
2) Medical marijuana collectives are unsavory, targets for crime, and will contribute to an unsafe environment.
This week, a study finds that pot collectives may not, in fact, contribute to crime.
UCLA researchers analyzed 95 neighborhoods in Sacramento, California, to see if the density of medical marijuana outlets could be linked to an increase in crime. The researchers took into account other variables known to be linked to crime: unemployment, one-person households, commercial zoning. The researchers did find that crime tended to be higher in commercial areas, or areas with high unemployment. But they found no connection between crime and the density of marijuana collectives.
As researchers often say, they admitted that this study is far from the final word and that “more research needs to be done.” (Scientists almost always call for more research, that’s what they do, after all.)
But even if this study is just the beginning of a scientific conversation, it raises doubts about a major argument against medical marijuana.
Shouldn’t profound suffering demand an open mind?
Medical marijuana has been shown to help some patients relieve many of the miseries that cancer treatment dishes out. Even a super mainstream organization like the American Cancer Society states that marijuana’s active ingredient has been shown to improve cancer patients’ appetites, to relieve pain, and to control vomiting.
Just click around marijuana websites for a few minutes and you’ll find claims that THC can make tumors shrink, destroy leukemia and glioma cells, kill bacteria, ease asthma, and many other things. Some of these claims are based on animal studies, some on single anecdotes, some on hope, some on hearsay.
I have no idea if medical marijuana will be proved to do more than relieve symptoms of diseases like cancer. But even if that’s all it does, isn’t that a lot?
I don’t have a dog in this fight; marijuana does nothing for me. But I know many other patients who would not have made it through chemo without medical marijuana. Of course, pot may have unintended side effects. Of course, it’s not a cure-all. But you could say the same about cancer treatment.
I’m always perplexed when civic leaders attack medical marijuana with a passion that borders on hysterical. Is a medical joint so much worse than, say, OxyContin, a drug that is widely prescribed and known to be wildly addictive? Is it more dangerous to society than alcohol, with all the social problems and car accidents that that drug creates?
Why do we insist on enshrining some mind-bending substances and vilifying others?
I suspect it has a lot to do with emotional feelings about rule-smashing hippies and the crazy 1960s than about any real danger that medical marijuana dispensaries might create. Of course, that’s not a scientific opinion; it’s just my opinion.
Still, I plan to keep an open mind about medical marijuana.
What about you? What do you think of medical marijuana dispensaries? Has THC helped you through cancer treatment? Have you had problems with medical marijuana?