Canada sheds northern light on marijuana

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Saturday, August 4, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — And now from our northern neighbors, the allegedly staid Canadians, a new antidote to our reefer madness.

The Canadian government has just increased the number of its people who can use marijuana as medicine. As of this month, the terminally ill and those with chronic diseases from cancer to AIDS to MS can turn their back yards into their medicine cabinets.

With the approval of a doctor, they can either grow it or get it free from the government, which is paying a company to nurture the plants in an abandoned copper mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Where does that leave us? U.S. citizens, who routinely cross the border for cheap prescription drugs, won’t be allowed access to the Manitoba motherload. But if Canadians can’t export their medical marijuana, it’s time for us to import their policy.

The northern light on the subject comes in the wake of a Canadian Supreme Court ruling that any patient suffering terminal or painful illness should be allowed access to marijuana when a doctor says it may help. Our own Supreme Court has moved in exactly the opposite direction. In May, our Supremes ruled on narrow grounds that federal drug law allows no exception for medical marijuana.

So the Canadians have implicitly recognized that marijuana has uses as well as abuses. But our government supports the idea that marijuana has no medicinal value worth the social risks.

Our law not only differs from Canada’s, It’s on a collision course with the policies in nine states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Nevada and Washington. More to the point, it’s on a collision course with patients who are looking for relief without looking for trouble.

Is anyone hallucinating?

Marijuana has a medical history that goes way back beyond the time when the straight-laced Queen Victoria took it for menstrual cramps. It was used widely in the West for pain and sleep, until aspirin and barbiturates came along. It was demonized in the 1930s with "reefer madness" propaganda and in the 1960s when Haight-Ashbury was covered in a stoned haze.

Today, thousands of patients from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to your neighbor’s grandmother have reported on pot’s value in relieving the nausea of chemotherapy or improving the appetite of an AIDS patient. Many doctors still wait for scientific proof, the double-blind studies that have become the gold standard of research. But no such studies existed when penicillin or even aspirin were accepted.

The few studies available show mixed results. A recent survey in a British medical journal reported that marijuana was no better than other available drugs for severe pain and somewhat better for nausea. But these were marijuana-based medications, not smoked marijuana. The patients still preferred the marijuana medications by a large margin.

Marijuana, like most drugs, has side effects, although worrying about the effects of smoking on the lungs of a terminally ill patient seems a bit absurd. One of the other side effects is what medical researchers label "euphoria," or in street parlance, a "high." But as Leonard Glantz, a Boston University professor of health law asks, "If someone is terminally ill, and they can eat and be euphoric, why is that bad?"

Here we get to the heart of the matter: the drug war in which marijuana has played a starring role with 700,000 arrests in 1998. There is a fear that if grandma can smoke it legally for her health, granddaughter will smoke it to get high.

"We’re seeing America’s war on drugs being taken to an extreme that begins to make no sense," says Glantz. Politicians are so afraid of appearing soft on drugs they can’t draw any distinctions.

Compare this to morphine. We don’t allow morphine on the street but we permit it in the doctor’s arsenal for the treatment of pain. Imagine the uproar if we made morphine illegal. There is no logic in treating marijuana differently.

The Canadian system has its own critics: doctors who worry about being gatekeepers and marijuana activists who think there are still too many hurdles. But we are in a marijuana muddle.

The feds aren’t likely to crack down on the terminally ill, nor are law enforcers eager to rip joints out of the hands of AIDS patients. Asa Hutchinson, the Bush pick to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, said prosecuting the medical marijuana dealers wasn’t "a priority." But meanwhile, patients are using drug dealers as doctors. And a treatment for suffering is a crime.

Is that a whiff of sanity from cross the border? Or just a contact high?

Ellen Goodman can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or send e-mail to

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