The smoke over medical marijuana

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

A comprehensive 2015 scientific review found medical marijuana to be useful only for a small number of medical conditions. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an international team of researchers found scant evidence to support broad claims for the drug’s effectiveness. Although clinical trials showed that chronic neuropathic pain and cancer-related pain could often be treated, other forms of pain, such as those related to rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, HIV and multiple sclerosis did not show statistically significant improvement. Researchers also found inconclusive data for people with insomnia, anxiety disorders, depression, Tourette syndrome, psychosis, and sleep disorders. They registered concerns about medical marijuana’s significant side effects as well.

Yale University researchers, commenting on the review, noted how the approval process for medical marijuana in U.S. states and jurisdictions has often been based on “low-quality scientific evidence, anecdotal reports, individual testimonials, legislative initiatives, and public opinion.” They raised concerns around the fact that medical marijuana seems to be receiving “special status” and is being “fast-tracked” for legalization, when it should instead be subject to the standard scientific verifications of the FDA approval process to assure its efficacy and safety. The Yale authors offered this corrective: “Imagine if other drugs were approved through a similar approach… If the goal is to make marijuana available for medical purposes, then it is unclear why the approval process should be different from that used for other medications.”

In his influential exposé Marijuana Debunked, Dr. Ed Gogek emphasizes how the idea of medical marijuana “didn’t come from doctors, or patient advocacy groups, or public health organizations, or the medical community. The ballot initiatives for medical marijuana laws were sponsored and promoted by pro-legalization groups.” These groups have used the medical marijuana trump card to grease the skids for the acceptance of recreational marijuana. This pincer movement has enabled them to control and reap the windfall from an extensive system of dispensaries that supply and distribute addictive substances. Even if recreational marijuana does not ultimately become legalized in a particular jurisdiction, it is well documented that medical marijuana dispensaries often end up supplying the drug not for rare, valid medical uses, but for substance abuse, similar to the situation with opioid pain medications.

Yet the push for marijuana continues unabated. In May 2018, the New York State Comptroller, Scott Stringer, issued a report declaring that legalized marijuana in the Empire State would be a potential $3 billion market, with taxes from its sale generating a potential $436 million annually statewide, and $336 million for New York City. With such sums at play, not only are investors coming out of the woodwork, but towns and municipalities are also issuing ordinances and changing zoning laws to bring in the dispensaries. Indeed, dollar signs beckon, much as they once did for tobacco companies and plantation owners.

Besides being addictive and profitable, tobacco and marijuana have other similarities. Marijuana smoke contains harmful chemicals, with ammonia, benzene, toluene, and naphthalene levels in marijuana exceeding those found in tobacco smoke. These chemical components may contribute to emphysema, bronchial irritation and inflammation. Patients with medical conditions treatable by medical marijuana can avoid these toxic chemicals and other side effects by using more purified preparations containing only the active ingredients.

In 2003, the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that evaluates medical issues, acknowledged that components of marijuana may have medicinal uses, and strongly recommended the development of prescription cannabinoid medicines based on those components: “If there is any future for marijuana as a medicine, it lies in its isolated components, the cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives.” Several different cannabinoid medications have been developed in recent years, and these medicines work as well as or better than marijuana, have fewer side effects, and are less likely to be abused. These drugs also tend to be effective in the body for longer periods.

Dr. Gogek notes the irony of the loud public outcry that would ensue if the FDA were to approve “a drug that had no advantage over safer alternatives, went mostly to substance abuse, increased teenage drug use, and killed people on the highways.” He concludes, “We should not be sidestepping the FDA approval process that was designed to protect us.”

In sum, the reality behind medical marijuana is far from the rosy view painted by advocates.  Marijuana is not “just a plant.” It is an addictive drug abused in epidemic proportions, inflicting a serious individual and societal toll. Its use as a medicine needs to be carefully regulated through standard scientific oversight and the FDA approval process, not handed over to recreational enthusiasts and opportunistic businessmen. The current practice of encouraging states and municipalities to legalize medical, and then recreational, marijuana, is, in the final analysis, neither reasonable nor ethical.

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.