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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Compassion Goes Up in Smoke

March 31, 2001|SAUL ISSAC HARRISON | Saul Issac Harrison, of Pacific Palisades, is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan College of Medicine and an adjunct professor at UCLA

As the son of immigrants, I grew up hearing ugly stories about the old country. They made me a patriotic lover of the Stars and Stripes like my parents, even as they knew our beloved country was less than perfect. As an adolescent, the nature of our World War II enemies added in intensity to the excited tingle I had always felt when I saw our flag.

Of course, I enlisted after my 17th birthday. Flags and tingles were common in the military. After the war I saw the flags less, but never without the tingle. Until the 1970s, which is when my country forced me to break the law to do the right thing.

Chemotherapy saved my daughter's life. But it was accompanied by lots of vomiting, which could be decreased by inhaling marijuana. This was years before today's legal availability of the pill form of marijuana's active substance, Marinol. So, I did the right thing and broke the law. I got Susie marijuana. And I have never felt that tingle from seeing the flag again.

Some might argue that I should have obeyed the law and let her tolerate the disagreeable side effects of her treatment. I disagreed then and I still do today.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Marinol has two problems. First, it is expensive and second, it has a slow rate of absorption into the body. The gastrointestinal tract is a lot slower than the weed's rapid absorption through the lungs. That slow absorption of the pill means that those with chronic diseases who had inhaled the weed for nausea and diminished appetite before the pill was available may find Marinol to be useless.

Indeed, if the Supreme Court justices who are considering the legality of California's medical marijuana law walked through a hospital's chemotherapy unit today, they would smell odors that document that even those recently diagnosed with cancer find inhalation of the weed to be more effective.

Of course, the weed is expensive, but that's only because it's illegal. If it were legalized and classified with restricted medicines like morphine and cocaine, it would be dirt cheap--literally costing little more than the dirt in which it was grown. And it would be better quality and safer than the expensive illegal weed. And our jails would be less crowded.

Shouldn't the Supreme Court consider those human truths while inspecting federal and state laws? If they feel obliged to designate cancer sufferers and their caretakers as criminals, I pray the justices append advice about answering children's inevitable question: Why is medical marijuana illegal while addictive and potentially lethal tobacco is OK if you are old enough?

Will I ever feel that Stars and Stripes tingle again?

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