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Mass. marijuana laws deny patients' comfort

By Amanda Collins
On October 8, 2009

Last year, Massachusetts voters embraced change in marijuana laws, decriminalizing its possession in small amounts. But for people across the Bay State who use pot to alleviate symptoms of debilitating illnesses, this new law doesn't go far enough. Since the law went into effect, Travis Palermo, a 22-year-old Boston resident living with stage III cancer, no longer has to worry about being thrown in jail for using marijuana to help him through the side-effects of chemotherapy. But he still risks getting fined and doesn't have a legal avenue for obtaining the plant marijuana, even though his doctor encourages him to use it.

"I feel like I'm doing something wrong," Travis said, "I have to be sneaky about getting it, and I get scared that I'm going to get caught. But it's not like I'm some druggie, it really helps me."

Modern research shows that Travis is right. Cannabis is proven to combat many of the uncomfortable side-effects that are associated with chemotherapy, including nausea, vomiting, anorexia, muscle and nerve pain, and anxiety, according to the American Cancer Society.

For those facing illnesses that may imminently take their lives, like cancer, it is outrageously cruel to deny them any substance that may help alleviate pain in their final stages of life. Doctors, not the government, should mandate whether cannabis use is appropriate for these individuals, and should be able to prescribe the drug to patients they feel it would benefit. This way, patients would have legal access to marijuana, and would use it under their doctor's care and guidance.

Massachusetts' marijuana laws are not in sync with scientific and medical communities. Currently, more than 60 international and national health organizations, including American Health Association and the American Association of Scientists, support granting patients' access to medicinal marijuana. Many other organizations, like the American Cancer Society, support clinical trials using marijuana. Scores of doctors also support the medicinal use of marijuana.

"The side-effects that go along with chemo can deter some from starting or continuing therapy," said Dr. Michael Atkins, director of Hematology/Oncology at Beth Israel Hospital. "We can try many different drugs to fight those side-effects, but hardly any can combat so many symptoms at once, like marijuana can. I can't prescribe it, but I don't tell my patients not use it."

It's time for Massachusetts to give doctors like Atkins the right to prescribe marijuana to patients who would benefit from its use.

Presently, 13 states have voted to exempt patients using marijuana under a physician's care from criminal penalties, according to NORML. This shows that, in these states, the majority of the public sees a difference in using pot for medicinal reasons, and using for recreational purposes.

Still, none of these states allow doctors to write prescriptions for marijuana, which would give patients a safe way to purchase the plant. Instead, patients are forced to obtain marijuana illegally. This does not make sense.

Since doctors are not able to prescribe marijuana, they have to turn to other drugs to help ease their patients' discomfort. In Travis' case, his doctor had to prescribe morphine, a far more dangerous and expensive drug than marijuana, to help alleviate some of his symptoms.

"I have awful pain from nerve-damage from my surgery," said Travis. "If I smoke pot, I don't feel the pain as much. But since it's hard to get, I had to ask my doctor for something. He prescribed morphine. It was so strong; I couldn't even function when I took it."

Cannabis does not just help patients going through chemotherapy. It has also been proven to help people suffering from glaucoma and movement disorders, according to the American Health Association. It's absurd to deny patients access to something that can make life more comfortable, especially if their doctor agrees to monitor their use of it.

As a state, we have finally said that people who use marijuana, particularly those with crippling illnesses, are not criminals. Now it's time to give doctors and patients legal access to marijuana for its proven medicinal properties.

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