New Jersey is on the verge of being the next state to grant medical authority to its legislators by enacting legislation to allow our citizens to smoke pot and call it medicine. Besides the obvious contradiction that even the most addicted smoker knows that smoking is medically harmful, both the American Medical Association and Food and Drug Administration (among many others) deny that smoked marijuana is medicine. Its purity cannot be controlled, nor can its dosage be regulated. However, when pro- and anti-marijuana dogmas clash, an important fact is lost: natural marijuana is not a medicine in and of itself, nor is it an evil drug; it is a plant. Marijuana is a complex plant that naturally contains dozens of identified psychoactive chemicals, some of which cause feelings of euphoria, others lead to addiction, and still others may have the potential to be medically beneficial.
The case of marijuana is actually quite similar to that of the willow tree. The willow tree bark itself, followed by an extract made from the bark, was used for its medicinal properties from ancient times until the eighteenth century. No one would ever say that the willow tree is medicine; however, one of the compounds in willow bark is salicylic acid, which is structurally similar to aspirin. Even so, it was not until chemists used this knowledge to create aspirin in 1899 that we had a true medicine, meaning we had an identified chemical (acetylsalicylic acid) that was able to be created with standard potency and studied in clinical trials. A doctor was now able to say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” and know exactly what he was prescribing. This was much more clinically sound than your great aunt saying; “Chew on some of this willow bark. It will make you feel better.”
It is my hope that state governments that are concerned about the health of their most seriously ill citizens will demand that the federal government not simply tolerate limited research into the potential medical properties in marijuana but demand that additional research be funded immediately. I would hate to think that the best we can do is tell people, “Here, smoke some of this. We know it is dangerous and most people will go to jail for using it, but this is the best we can do for you.” If we really wanted to help people who are in desperate need, we would demand the development of lozenges, inhalers, patches, or even those fast dissolving oral strips, that can be dosage controlled – we would demand true medicine. Who knows how many potential medicines could be derived from the marijuana plant? While legislators fight it out on ideological lines, and pro-marijuana groups lobby for the right to smoke pot, the opportunity to truly help people is going up in smoke.