Medical Marijuana and Aging (page2)
"The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health..." So began a 1995 editorial statement of Great Britain's leading medical journal, The Lancet. The long history of human use of cannabis also attests to its safety - nearly 5,000 years of documented use without a single death. In the same year as the Lancet editorial, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School who has published many influential books and articles on medical use of cannabis, had this to say in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1995):
"One of marihuana's greatest advantages as a medicine is its remarkable safety. It has little effect on major physiological functions. There is no known case of a lethal overdose; on the basis of animal models, the ratio of lethal to effective dose is estimated as 40,000 to 1. By comparison, the ratio is between 3 and 50 to 1 for secobarbital and between 4 and 10 to 1 for ethanol. Marihuana is also far less addictive and far less subject to abuse than many drugs now used as muscle relaxants, hypnotics, and analgesics. The chief legitimate concern is the effect of smoking on the lungs. Cannabis smoke carries even more tars and other particulate matter than tobacco smoke. But the amount smoked is much less, especially in medical use, and once marihuana is an openly recognized medicine, solutions may be found; ultimately a technology for the inhalation of cannabinoid vapors could be developed."
The technology Dr. Grinspoon imagined in 1995 now exists in the form of "vaporizers," (which are widely available through stores and by mail-order) and recent research attests to their efficacy and safety. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies have developed sublingual sprays and tablet forms of the drug. Patients and doctors have found other ways to avoid the potential problems associated with smoking, though long-term studies of even the heaviest users in Jamaica, Turkey and the U.S. have not found increased incidence of lung disease or other respiratory problems. A decade-long study of 65,000 Kaiser-Permanente patients comparing cancer rates among non-smokers, tobacco smokers, and cannabis smokers found that those who used only cannabis had a slightly lower risk of lung and other cancers as compared to non-smokers. Similarly, a study comparing 1,200 patients with lung, head and neck cancers to a matched group with no cancer found that even those cannabis smokers who had consumed in excess of 20,000 joints had no increased risk of cancer.
As Dr. Grinspoon notes, "the greatest danger in medical use of marihuana is its illegality, which imposes much anxiety and expense on suffering people, forces them to bargain with illicit drug dealers, and exposes them to the threat of criminal prosecution." This was the conclusion reached by the House of Lords, which recommended rescheduling and decriminalization.
Those committed to the prohibition on cannabis frequently cite Marinol, a Schedule III drug, as the legal means to obtain the benefits of cannabis. However, Marinol, which is a synthetic form of THC, does not deliver the same therapeutic benefits as the natural herb, which contains at least another 60 cannabinoids in addition to THC. Recent research conducted by GW Pharmaceuticals in Great Britain has shown that Marinol is simply not as effective for pain management as the whole plant; a balance of cannabinoids, specifically CBC and CBD with THC, is what helps patients most. In fact, Marinol is not labeled for pain, only appetite stimulation and nausea control. But studies have found that many severely nauseated patients experience difficulty in getting and keeping a pill down, a problem avoided by use of inhaled cannabis.
Clinical research on Marinol vs. cannabis has been limited by federal restrictions, but a review of state clinical trials conducted in the 70's and 80's published in 2001 reports that "...the data reviewed here suggested that the inhalation of THC appears to be more effective than the oral route... Patients who smoked marijuana experienced 70-100% relief from nausea and vomiting, while those who used THC capsules experienced 76-88% relief." Additionally, patients frequently have difficulty getting the right dose with Marinol, while inhaled cannabis allows for easier titration and avoids the negative side effects many report with Marinol. As the House of Lords states, "Some users of both find cannabis itself more effective."
In 1911, at the age of one, I contracted the polio virus. The early onset of polio caused permanent damage in my legs, spine, and back, resulting in significant weakness and atrophy in my legs. As a result, I have never been able to walk without the assistance of crutches and braces or a wheelchair. Approximately 30 years ago, my condition began to deteriorate. I began to suffer from increasing levels of pain and weakness in my legs and back as well as severe osteoarthritis in my hands, arms, and joints. Over time, my deteriorating medical condition has been exacerbated by my pain, leaving me increasingly immobilized.
By May, 1996, my physician [Dr. Arnold Leff, M.D.] had tried various prescription medications to relieve my pain, including: Tylenol #3, Ultram, Daypro, Tegretol, Soma, Valium, steroid injections into the trigger point, Dilantin, Duragesic, Zofran and Comapazine for the nausea caused by the opioid pain relievers, and Doloboid and Lodine as nonsteroids. Nothing seemed to work, and the pain persisted. I was growing increasingly depressed by the inability of anything to relieve my pain. During this period it was clear to me, my caretaker and my physician that nothing was working to combat my pain. My caretaker, Pat, had heard of the success some people experience with the medicinal use of marijuana for pain management. Sometime during the end of 1997, she obtained a sample for me. Although I had never used marijuana in my previous eighty-seven years of life, I was willing to try anything that could alleviate even part of the pain.
The relief I experienced from medical marijuana was almost immediate. I was so pleased with the result that I wrote to Dr. Leff about my use of medical marijuana and we talked about the benefits of the medicine. Dr. Leff examined me and noted that medical marijuana helped me experience less chronic pain and nausea, leading him to recommended medical marijuana as part of my daily pain care regimen... I strongly feel that I should have the right to use anything that may relieve any or some of my pain, and my last days should not be spent suffering. . . . Ever since trying medical marijuana, my life has drastically improved. Although chronic pain, related to my post-polio syndrome will always be a part of my life, medical marijuana had helped me manage this pain by providing fast and effective relief for my muscle spasms, acute pains, and arthritis.
Since I began using medical marijuana, my pain is no longer persistent or debilitating. When I do suffer from pain, I am usually able to "get ahead of it" by using medical marijuana and make it manageable.
In 1989, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a brief period of recovery from the surgeries, I was placed on an aggressive protocol of chemotherapy, which lasted for eight months. That protocol was referred to as "CMF," because it consisted of heavy doses of Cytoxan, methotraxate, and 5 fluorouracil.
The treatment caused severe and persistent side effects which were thoroughly disabling: chronic nausea, joint pain and weakness; a debilitating lack of energy and motivation; loss of appetite and a resulting unwanted weight loss; sleep disruption; and eventually my withdrawal from social situations and interpersonal relationships. The cumulative effect of these symptoms often rendered it impossible (or painfully difficult) to take the huge number of medications essential to my treatment regimen.
Right from the start, I was given Compazine as part of my chemotherapy protocol. I took it both orally (in pill form) and intravenously, but it too caused severe adverse side effects, including neuropathy. Moreover, the Compazine provided little, if any, relief from the nausea that had persisted since my treatment began. Hoping for better results, my doctor discontinued the Compazine and prescribed Reglan. That, too, had no effect on the nausea and we decided to discontinue it after a fairly short time. By then, I had developed chronic mouth sores (also from the chemotherapy), which made it extremely painful to take pills or swallow anything. Rather than providing relief, the Reglan increased my discomfort and pain.
Yet another drug I tried was Marinol, which gave me no relief from the unrelenting nausea. If anything, taking yet another pill increased my discomfort. The pills themselves irritated the sores in my mouth. It also made me quite groggy, yet my sleep disturbance persisted, in part because my nausea and anxiety were so distracting.
During this time, a friend of mine (who happened to be a nurse) gave me a marijuana cigarette. She had seen my suffering and thought it might help. I took her advice and it worked. I took just a few puffs and within minutes, the nausea dissipated. For the first time in several months, I felt relief. I also felt hope. I smoked small amounts of marijuana for the remainder of my chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It was not a regular part of my day, nor did it become a habit. Each time I felt nausea coming on, I inhaled just two or three puffs and it subsided.
As my nausea decreased, my ability to eat and retain food increased. I saw a marked weight gain and my energy increased. As my general health improved, my sleeping habits also improved. In retrospect, one of the greatest benefits from the marijuana was that it decreased my use of other, more disabling and toxic medications, including the Compazine, Reglan and Lorazepam.
My cancer has been in remission now for just under a year. I lived to see my son's Bar Mitzvah, and I am proud to say that the risks I took to save my life, while technically illegal, have earned me the respect of both my children. They have learned the difference between therapeutic treatment and substance abuse, and (unlike many of their peers) that knowledge has helped them resist the temptations of recreational drugs. My decision to use marijuana and save my own life has educated many, including my rabbi and my congregation.
In 1980, I was appointed by Dianne Feinstein, then Mayor of San Francisco, to serve as police commissioner for the city of San Francisco, an office which I held for six years. On May 24, 1988, I was diagnosed with Phase IV cancer of the colon. By the time it was diagnosed, it had already spread to my ovaries and lymph nodes. My oncologist at the UCSF Hospital prescribed an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, which lasted six months. I was given large doses of the chemicals, four hours a day, five days a week in the first week of each month.
Each day, when I returned home from the hospital following treatment. . . I was overcome by a sudden wave of intense nausea, like a nuclear implosion in my solar plexus, and I rushed desperately for the bathroom where I would remain for hours, clutching the toilet and retching my guts out. I had no appetite. I could not hold down what little food that I managed to swallow. And I could not sleep at night.
This intense nausea persisted for the two weeks following the treatment. By the third week after treatment, the side effects of the chemicals began to wear off, and I started to feel better. The next week, however, I had to return to the hospital where the chemicals were administered once more, beginning my hell all over again. To combat the nausea, I tried Marinol, a synthetic version of THC, one of the primary chemicals found in marijuana. However, I was often unable to swallow the Marinol capsule because of my severe nausea and retching. A friend then gave me a marijuana cigarette, suggesting that it might help quell my nausea. I took three puffs from the cigarette. One-half hour later, I was calm, my nausea had disappeared, my appetite returned, and I slept that evening.
I told my oncologist about how well marijuana quelled my nausea. My doctor was not surprised. In fact, he told me that many of his patients had made the same discovery. My doctor encouraged me to continue using marijuana if it worked. Although it occasionally produced a slight euphoria, it was not a painful sensation, and I was careful never to leave the house during those rare moments. My use of medical marijuana had a secondary, though by no means minor benefit: I was able to drastically reduce my dependence on more powerful prescription drugs that I was prescribed for pain and nausea. With the help of medical marijuana, which I ingest only occasionally and in small amounts, I no longer need the Compazine, Lorazepam, Ativan and Halcion.
Both my research and my many years as a clinician have convinced me that marijuana can serve at least two important roles in safe and effective pain management. Ample anecdotal evidence and clinical observations, as well as significant research findings, strongly indicate that marijuana, for whatever reason, is often effective in relieving pain. This is true across a range of patient populations, including the elderly, the terminally ill seeking comfort in their final days, young adults stricken with life-threatening conditions, and cancer patients unable to tolerate the devastating effects of potentially life-saving therapies. Marijuana is also widely recognized as an antiemetic that reduces the nausea and vomiting often induced by powerful opioid analgesics prescribed for chronic, severe pain, as well as the nausea, vomiting and dizziness which often accompany severe and/or prolonged pain. I have had the benefit of consultations on this subject over many years with a range of treatment providers, including physicians, oncologists, pharmacologists, family practitioners, hospice workers, and pain specialists.
Specifically, I have found that cannabis can have an important opioid-sparing effect for pain patients. That is to say, that patients who are prescribed high doses of opioid analgesics can significantly reduce their reliance on these medications and improve their daily functioning by incorporating cannabis into their pain care regimen.
Marijuana not only has important analgesic properties but it also is an effective and important adjuvant therapy for patients suffering acute and/or chronic pain. No experienced and respected physician will deny that for such patients opioid therapy is central to palliative care. By the same token, the same experienced physicians will readily acknowledge that opioids often induce nausea and vomiting. For a number of pain patients, standard prescription antiemetics (e.g., Compazine, Zofran and Reglan) simply do not substantially reduce their nausea. For many, those medications are substantially less effective, or produce more debilitating side effects, than marijuana.
Quite simply, marijuana can serve much the same function for pain patients undergoing opiate therapy that it does for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: it suppresses the nausea and vomiting associated with treatment, and reduces the pain associated with prolonged nausea and retching, thereby increasing the chances that the patient will remain compliant with the primary treatment. With both chemotherapy and long-term pain management, failure to obtain and continue proper palliative and adjutant care can have dire, even fatal, consequences.
Finally, it is important to note that in my clinical experience observing patients who ingest cannabis for relief from pain and nausea and/or to stimulate appetite, I have witnessed no adverse complications. By contrast, many of the first-line pharmaceuticals used to combat cancer, HIV/AIDS, and pain associated with these and other illnesses can induce a variety of iatrogenic effects, including, in some instances, death. While patients may face serious legal implications related to their use of medical marijuana, as a physician I have yet to encounter a medical downside to their cannabinoid therapy. . . .
[A]gainst the backdrop of a growing body of scientific research, the reports of myriad pain patients, and the burgeoning clinical experience of physicians like myself, it is my considered opinion that cannabis can constitute an acceptable and sometimes necessary medicine to alleviate the immediate suffering of certain patients. Dr. Rose has served as a medical officer in the Air Force, taught at UC Davis School of Medicine, and consulted with state legislative bodies.
In my practice, I commonly use radiation therapy to treat the whole spectrum of solid malignant tumors. Radiation therapy is often used after surgery or chemotherapy, as a second stage in treatment. Sometimes, however, radiation therapy is used concurrently with chemotherapy, or even as the first or only modality of treatment.
Because of the nature of some cancers, I must sometimes irradiate large portions of my patients' abdomens. Such patients often experience nausea, vomiting, and other side effects. Because of the severity of these side effects, some of my patients choose to discontinue treatment altogether, even when they know that ceasing treatment could lead to death.
During the 1980s, I participated in a state-sponsored study of the effects of marijuana and THC (an active ingredient in marijuana) on nausea. It was my observation during this time that some patients smoked marijuana while hospitalized, often with the tacit approval of physicians. I also observed that medical marijuana was clinically effective in treating the nausea of some patients.
During my career as a physician, I have witnessed cases where patients suffered from nausea or vomiting that could not be controlled by prescription anti-emetics. I frequently hear similar reports from colleagues treating cancer and AIDS patients. As a practical matter, some patients are unable to swallow pills because of the side effects of radiation therapy or chemotherapy, or because of the nature of the cancer (for instance, throat cancer). For these patients, medical marijuana can be an effective form of treatment.
Because I was a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy at the same hospital where I worked, the elderly women with whom I shared the suite quickly surmised that I was also a doctor. The clues were obvious: the colleagues dropping by, the "doctor" salutations from co-workers and the odd coincidence that one of my suitemates was also one of my patients.
I braced myself for this woman's question, both wanting to make my-self available to her but also wishing that the world could forget that I was a doctor for the moment. After receiving my cancer diagnosis, dealing with surgery and chemo-therapy and grappling with insistent reminders of my mortality, I had no desire to think about medicine or to experience myself as a physician in that oncology suite. And besides, the chemotherapy, anti-nauseants, sleep medications and prednisone were hampering my ability to think clearly.
So, after a gentle disclaimer about my clinical capabilities, I said I'd do my best to answer her question. She shoved her IV line out of the way and, with great effort and discomfort, rolled on her side to face me. Her belly was a pendulous sack bloated with ovarian cancer cells, and her eyes were vacant of any light. She became short of breath from the task of turning toward me.
"Tell me," she managed, "Do you think marijuana could help me? I feel so sick."
I winced. I knew about her wretched pain, her constant nausea and all the prescription drugs that had failed her - some of which also made her more constipated, less alert and even more nauseous. I knew about the internal derangements of chemotherapy, the terrible feeling that a toxic swill is invading your bones, destroying your gut and softening your brain. I knew this woman was dying a prolonged and miserable death. And, from years of clinical experience, I, like many other doctors, also knew that marijuana could actually help her. From working with AIDS and cancer patients, I repeatedly saw how marijuana could ameliorate a patient's debilitating fatigue, restore appetite, diminish pain, remedy nausea, cure vomiting and curtail down-to-the-bone weight loss. I could firmly attest to its benefits and wager the likelihood that it would decrease her suffering.
Still, federal law has forbidden doctors to ... prescribe marijuana to patients [though doctors may legally recommend it.] In fact, in 1988 the Drug Enforcement Agency even rejected one of its own administrative law judge's conclusions supporting medicinal marijuana, after two full years of hearings on the issue. Judge Francis Young recommended the change on grounds that "marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man," and that it offered a "currently accepted medical use in treatment."
Doctors see all sorts of social injustices that are written on the human body, one person at a time. But this one - the rote denial of a palliative care drug like marijuana to people with serious illness - smacks of pure cruelty precisely because it is so easily remediable, precisely because it prioritizes service to a cold political agenda over the distressed lives and deaths of real human beings.
Washington bureaucrats - far removed from the troubled bedsides of sick and dying patients - are ignoring what patients and doctors and health care workers are telling them about real world suffering. The federal refusal to honor public referendums like California's voter-approved Medical Marijuana Initiative is bewildering. Its refusal to listen to doctors groups like the California Medical Association that support compassionate use of medical marijuana is chilling. In a society that has witnessed extensive positive experiences with medicinal marijuana, as long as it is safe and not proven to be ineffective, why shouldn't seriously ill patients have access to it? Why should an old woman be made to die a horrible death for a hollow political symbol?
As a practicing neurologist, I saw many patients for whom uncontrollable spasticity was a major problem. Unfortunately, there are very few drugs specifically designed to treat spasticity. Moreover, these drugs often cause very serious side effects. Dantrium or dantrolene sodium carries a boxed warning in the Physician's Desk Reference because of its very high toxicity... The adverse effects associated with Lioresal Baclofen are somewhat less severe, but include possibly lethal consequences, even when the drug is properly prescribed and taken as directed. Unfortunately, neither Dantrium or Lioresal are very effective spasm control drugs. Their marignal medical utility, high toxicity, and potential for serious adverse effects, make these drugs difficult to use in spasticity therapy.
[Dr. Petro then related his experience with a patient who was smoking cannabis for his symptoms. Dr. Petro and colleagues examined the patient and then asked him to refrain from smoking for six weeks. He continues:]
After six weeks he returned for another examination. At this time, he reported an increase in his symptoms to the point where he had leg pains, increased clonic activity, and uncontrolled leg spasms every night. More disturbing to him was urinary incontinence, which occurred on two occasions during leg spasms. On objective examination, in layman's terms, this patient's spasticity had increased dramatically in six weeks. This spasticity made his legs extremely rigid, he was finding it increasingly difficult to walk or sleep, and he was losing bladder control.
Following our examination, and at the patient's request, he left the clinic then returned one hour later to be examined for a second time. This second examination was remarkable. The earlier findings of moderate to severe spasticity could not be elicited. Deep tendon reflexes were brisk, but without spread, ankle clonus was absent, and the plantar response was flexor on the left and equivocal on the right.
In short, this patient had undergone a stunning transformation. Moreover, this unmistakable improvement had occurred in an incredibly brief period of time. Less than an hour separated the two examinations. On questioning, the patient informed us he had smoked part of one marijuana cigarette in the interval between examinations.
Denis Petro, M.D is a former FDA Review Officer and principal investigator on spasticity and cannabis.
The history of the medical use of cannabis dates back to 2700 B.C. in the pharmacopoeia of Shen Nung, one of the fathers of Chinese medicine. In the west, it has been recognized as a valued, therapeutic herb for centuries. In 1823, Queen Victoria's personal physician, Sir Russell Reynolds, not only prescribed it to her for menstrual cramps but wrote in the first issue of The Lancet, "When pure and administered carefully, [it is] one of the of the most valuable medicines we possess."
The American Medical Association opposed the first federal law against cannabis with an article in its leading journal. Their representative, Dr. William C. Woodward, testified to Congress that "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug," and that any prohibition "loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis." Cannabis remained part of the American pharmacopoeia until 1942 and is currently available by prescription in the Netherlands and Canada.
Federal policy on medical cannabis is filled with contradictions. Cannabis was widely prescribed until the turn of the century. Now cannabis is a Schedule I drug, classified as having no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse, yet its most psychoactive component, THC, is legally available as Marinol and is classified as Schedule III. But the U.S. federal government also grows and provides cannabis for a small number of patients today.
In 1976 the federal government created the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access research program to allow patients to receive medical cannabis from the government. The application process was extremely complicated, and few physicians became involved. In the first twelve years the government accepted about a half dozen patients. The federal government approved the distribution of up to nine pounds of cannabis a year to these patients, all of whom report being substantially helped by it.
In 1989 the FDA was deluged with new applications from people with AIDS, and 34 patients were approved within a year. In June 1991, the Public Health Service announced that the program would be suspended because it undercut the administration's opposition to the use of illegal drugs. The program was discontinued in March 1992 and the remaining patients had to sue the federal government on the basis of "medical necessity" to retain access to their medicine. Today, a few surviving patients still receive medical cannabis from the federal government, grown under a doctor's supervision at the University of Mississippi and paid for by federal tax dollars. Despite this successful medical program and centuries of documented safe use, cannabis is still classified in America as a Schedule I substance. Healthcare advocates have tried to resolve this contradiction through legal and administrative channels. In 1972, a petition was submitted to reschedule cannabis so that it could be prescribed to patients.
The DEA stalled hearings for 16 years, but in 1988 their chief administrative law judge, Francis L. Young, ruled that, "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known... It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance."
The DEA refused to implement this ruling based on a procedural technicality and continues to classify cannabis as a substance with no medical use.
Public opinion is clearly in favor of ending the prohibition of medical cannabis and has been for some time. A CNN/Time poll in November 2002 found that 80% of Americans support medical cannabis. The AARP, the national association whose 35 million members are over the age of fifty, released a national poll in December 2004 showing that nearly two-thirds of older Americans support legal access to medical marijuana. Support in the West, where most states that allow legal access are located, was strongest, at 82%, but at least 2 out of 3 everywhere agreed that "adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it."
The refusal of the federal government to act on this support has meant that patients have had to turn to the states for action. Since 1996, 15 states have removed criminal penalties for their citizens who use cannabis on the advice of a physcian. Voters have passed medical cannabis ballot initiatives in 10 states plus the District of Columbia, while the legislatures in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont and have enacted similar bills. Approximately one third of the U.S. population resides in a state that permits medical use, and medical cannabis legislation is introduced in more states every year.
Currently, laws that effectively remove state-level criminal penalties for growing and/or possessing medical cannabis are in place in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Maryland has reduced the criminal penalty for medical use to a maximum $100 fine. Thirty-six states have symbolic medical cannabis laws (laws that support medical cannabis but do not provide patients with legal protection under state law).
In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision by a U.S. appeals court (Raich v. Ashcroft) that had exempted medical marijuana from federal prohibition. The 2005 decision, now called Gonzales v. Raich, ruled that federal officials may prosecute medical marijuana patients for possessing, consuming, and cultivating medical cannabis. But according to numerous legal opinions, that ruling does not affect individual states' medical marijuana programs, and only applies to prosecution in federal, not state, court.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the FDA are currently reviewing two legal petitions with broad implications for medical marijuana. The first, brought by ASA under the Data Quality Act, says HHS must correct its statements that there is no medical use for marijuana to reflect the many studies which have found it helpful for many conditions. Acknowledging legitimate medical use would then force the agency to consider allowing the prescribing of marijuana as they do other drugs, based on its relative safety. A separate petition, of which ASA is a co-signer, asks the DEA for a full, formal re-evaluation of marijuana's medical benefits, based on hundreds of recent medical research studies and two thousand years of documented human use.
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