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What real medical marijuana would look like

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
February 4, 2011 6:11 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Tacoma City Council has done itself proud. Its decision to tolerate illegal medical marijuana sales has borne fruit in a pot shop at one of the city’s iconic family and tourist attractions, Freighthouse Square.

Hello, San Francisco. This is what the future holds – especially in Tacoma, apparently – if cannabis advocates succeed in expanding and privileging the fast-and-loose industry that medical marijuana is rapidly becoming in Washington.

Some lawmakers are actually pushing a bill that would loosen already-lax prescribing rules, legalize commercial sales, sanction large-scale grow operations and give users extraordinary legal protections against child-custody complaints, workplace anti-drug policies and law enforcement.

That’s precisely where medical marijuana should not be taken in this state.

But the Legislature could do much to clean up the current mess and help legitimate patients – simply by treating medical marijuana as medicine.

Cannabis does help some patients whose conditions can’t be relieved by other treatments, and some ethical doctors will recommend it in those narrow cases. But if it’s medicine, its purveyors shouldn’t be allowed to operate outside the rules that control the abuse and misuse of other potent drugs.

For example, the fly-by-night clinics that mass-produce marijuana authorization documents for patients – often on flimsy medical pretexts – are not required to maintain detailed medical records. That makes auditing and enforcement extremely difficult. The laxity taints the credibility of every authorization in the state.

So does the fact that some authorities have been tolerating cross-ownership of clinics and dispensing operations, which would be a shocking conflict of interest in real medical settings.

The system as a whole is wide open to corruption. Compare it to the regulation of frequently abused legal drugs. Some hack practitioners do pass out the prescriptions for opiates or benzodiazepines too freely, but they can be exposed and disciplined. A genuinely medical model of marijuana would have effective ways of weeding out the Dr. Feelgoods.

A medical model would also require that people who dispense marijuana demonstrate a serious understanding of pharmacology. In the world of real medicine, people like that are called pharmacists.

They typically have six or seven years of training, and they understand things like brain chemistry, drug interactions, contraindications, and patterns of abuse and addiction. They’re also trained to spot and report the work of hack doctors.

Whatever else cannabis may be, it’s an extremely complex drug, containing roughly 60 cannabinoid compounds that have various effects on the brain. You would think lawmakers might want the dispensers of this chemical brew to possess credible scientific training and certification.

But most advocates – including some Tacoma officials – seem quite content to leave the field open to high school dropouts, ex-cons and people who flunked freshman biology. No one in the “medical marijuana community” appears interested in requiring dispensaries to meet rigorous professional standards.

The question isn’t whether marijuana has medicinal properties; it’s whether it ought to be treated, controlled and regulated as a bona fide therapeutic drug.

That would mean tightening the authorization and dispensing rules, not legalizing something that walks and talks like an offshoot of the drug culture. What the marijuana lobby prefers instead – and what the Tacoma council seems OK with – looks a little too much like the retail arm of Hempfest.

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