Give Pot a Chance

Roy Porter

The solution to today’s cannabis problem, this book concludes, is to legalise it ‘for all uses’ and remove it ‘entirely from the medical and criminal control systems’. The authors, respectively a professor of psychiatry and a lecturer in law at Harvard Medical School, believe legalisation is desirable for all the reasons now widely adduced in the UK, not least by some senior police officers and by last year’s Lib Dem Party Conference: that the criminalisation of cannabis is absurd given the promotion of tobacco and alcohol; that it creates black markets, police corruption and crime; that the law against it is impossible to enforce, and, manifestly lacking the endorsement of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens – there may be twelve million users in the USA – compromises respect for the law and the police. Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar’s argument, however, is that marijuana should be legalised because of its medicinal properties. Its benefits as a general ‘feel-good’ drug, preferable to certain anti depressants and tranquillisers manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry, have been widely touted by legalisation groups: Grinspoon and Bakalar seek to publicise its more specific therapeutic applications.

One lies in cancer treatment. Among the worst side-effects of chemotherapy are severe vomiting and appetite loss; damaging consequences for morale often follow. Many patients have found that smoking a joint before chemotherapy sessions can circumvent these side-effects far more successfully than drugs prescribed for that purpose, which often bring further side-effects. Another use lies in the control of glaucoma, an eye disease involving increased intra-ocular pressure that leads to severe loss of vision and often blindness. Standard prescription drugs (e.g. beta blockers administered in the form of eye-drops) are widely found unsatisfactory, their side-effects including depression, asthma and risk of heart failure. It was discovered by chance some years ago that cannabis effectively reduces intra-ocular pressure, and many glaucoma sufferers attest that smoking it has proved the sole effective treatment.

Grinspoon and Bakalar go through a succession of conditions, from epilepsy and multiple sclerosis to menstrual cramps, in which it is claimed that relief is better obtained through cannabis than with officially-prescribed medications. Some of their evidence stems from papers published in regular medical journals, but most is from first-hand accounts written by (American) sufferers.

These testimonies are moving and often angry. They tell of great pain suffered while undergoing surgery or a series of ineffective prescription medications, followed by the discovery of a treatment that actually works. The irony is that the one effective therapy is illegal. Hence marijuana generally has to be used against medical advice – or at best under the blind-eye of an unusually sympathetic physician Obtaining the weed often proved costly and risky. Not least, it went against the grain with Middle Americans, who in principle supported the ‘war on drugs’ but grew exasperated by the hypocrisy of a system that obstinately denied them palliation. ‘As a parent I was strongly opposed to marijuana,’ writes one contributor, whose cancer-stricken son could tolerate chemotherapy only with the aid of pot: ‘if marijuana had medical value, we thought that the Government would know and would make it legally available by prescription.’ She was to discover how innocent she had been.

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