Drug Policy

California's Largest Medical Association Says Marijuana Prohibition Is Bad Public Health Policy

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From the L.A. Times

Trustees of the California Medical Assn., which represents more than 35,000 physicians statewide, adopted the position at their annual meeting in Anaheim late Friday. It is the first major medical association in the nation to urge legalization of the drug, according to a group spokeswoman, who said the larger membership was notified Saturday.

Dr. Donald Lyman, the Sacramento physician who wrote the group's new policy, attributed the shift to growing frustration over California's medical marijuana law, which permits cannabis use with a doctor's recommendation. That, he said, has created an untenable situation for physicians: deciding whether to give patients a substance that is illegal under federal law.

"It's an uncomfortable position for doctors," he said. "It is an open question whether cannabis is useful or not. That question can only be answered once it is legalized and more research is done. Then, and only then, can we know what it is useful for."

The CMA's new stance appears to have as much to do with politics as science. The group has rejected one of the main arguments of medical marijuana advocates, declaring that the substance has few proven health benefits and comparing it to a "folk remedy."

The group acknowledges some health risk associated with marijuana use and proposes that it be regulated along the lines of alcohol and tobacco. But it says the consequences of criminalization outweigh the hazards.

Lyman says current laws have "proven to be a failed public health policy." He cited increased prison costs, the effect on families when marijuana users are imprisoned and racial inequalities in drug-sentencing cases.

Read the whole thing, including typically obtuse responses from the nanny- and police-staters (Georgetown's Dr. Robert DuPont: "I think it's going to lead to more use, and that, to me, is a public health concern"; California Police Chiefs Assocation: "Given everything that we know about the physiological impacts of marijuana—how it affects young brains, the number of accidents associated with driving under the influence—it's just an unbelievably irresponsible position.") And, if you can make time and spare a few bucks, read The New Yorker's new feature on decriminalization in Portugal (subscription required). The story features myriad testimonials from Portugese doctors and law enforcement officials extolling the public health benefits of treating drug users like human beings. My favorite quote comes from Elisabete Moutinho, a psychologist with Portugal's Ministry of Health, in defense of clean needle exchange programs:

"I know that it is not easy for everyone to accept, but they don't get AIDS from a dirty needle, or hepatitis. They are not beaten by gangs or arrested or put in jail. There is no police corruption, because there is nothing to get rich from. It is a program that reduces harm, and I don't see a better approach." 

Politically, marijuana and heroin are apples and oranges. Yet there's a lot of overlap between the CMA's argument against pot prohibition and Moutinho's defense of needle exchanges; mainly the idea that destroying users' families and destabilizing poor communities is a more serious public health crisis than allowing adults safe access to drugs they already use.