Research Paper: What Makes Marijuana Okay to Prescribe to Cancer Patients?

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Medical Marijuana

The question of whether and when to prescribe medical marijuana to patients suffering from debilitating and potentially terminal diseases like cancer is so complicated because it locates the potential conflict between medical ethics and the law in the patient-physician relationship. This relationship presents the core upon which any medical treatment program is built, and understanding what makes it acceptable to prescribe marijuana to cancer patients requires understanding the physician's responsibilities to the patient. Physicians are ethically required to do no harm to their patients, and as a potential treatment of the symptoms of cancer, marijuana presents an option where the potential harm seems minimal, even if the legal classification of marijuana presents it as a dangerous drug. Examining the potential benefits of prescribing marijuana to cancer patients demonstrates that its potential to ease pain, increase appetite, and improve the patient's psychological well-being outweighs any potential harm, and thus a physician would be ethically justified in prescribing marijuana.

Before Examining the key reasons why it would be acceptable to prescribe marijuana to cancer patients, it will be useful to first consider the arguments against this practice in order to have a better idea as to the controversy. The most obvious argument against prescribing medical marijuana to a patient is the simple fact that in many areas, marijuana remains illegal. In the United States this situation is compounded by the fact that certain states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and in some cases recreational use even as the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is classified in the same way as "heroin, ecstasy, LSD, GHB, and peyote," and is even more restricted than "drugs like cocaine, codeine, Oxycontin, and methamphetamine," which are classified as Schedule II (Thomas, 2010, p. 2). As a result, a situation exists wherein states are saying that marijuana is an acceptable drug for both recreational and medicinal use while the federal government is claiming that it has no legitimate use, medicinal or otherwise.

Arguing against the federal prohibition on marijuana is not the direct goal of this study, but it is a kind of side-effect of arguing that it is acceptable for physicians to prescribe marijuana to cancer patients. However, going into the history of the legal regime regulating marijuana is well beyond the scope of this study, so it will have to suffice to say that the legal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug has more to do with politics than with science, a fact made clear by the observation that government panels since at least the 1970s have recommended that marijuana be legalized, only to be shot down by presidents and Congress members intent on making a name for themselves as tough on crime (Thomas, 2010, p. 2). Understanding that the current legal classification of marijuana is not based on research or science allows one to more comfortably propose that this is ultimately a case where ethics demands the breaking of law in the name of health and quality of life.

Because federal law ultimately supersedes state law in this area, there is an obvious legal reason not to prescribe medical marijuana, because there is always the looming possibility that the federal government will decide to crack down on medical marijuana patients and providers. While the federal government has not maintained a coherent or consistent approach to drug law enforcement as it relates to medical marijuana, there have been enough instances of federal agents raiding marijuana dispensaries for this to be a genuine concern (Thomas, 2010, p. 4). This could present a real problem for cancer patients, who are already suffering undue stress and anxiety and who likely do not need the added worry of their medicine suddenly being seized by the federal government.

While the legal opposition to medical marijuana presents a practical argument against prescribing marijuana to a cancer patient, this argument says nothing about ethics or the efficacy of the treatment, because in this instance the law is clearly not in line with the available evidence concerning marijuana, as indicated by the fact that marijuana is considered more dangerous and addictive than cocaine. Thus, while there may be a straightforward legal argument against prescribing marijuana to cancer patients, this legal argument should not be enough to dissuade physicians from prescribing marijuana in cases where it might do real good, because when the law and a patient's well-being come into conflict, the physicians responsibility should lie with the patient rather than the law. However, there is also a medical argument against prescribing marijuana that needs to be discussed, but as will be seen, this argument is no more convincing than the legal one.

Partially because of the legal classification of marijuana, in-depth studies as to its effectiveness have not been conducted (Martin, 2002, p. 5; Cohen, 2006, p. 20). Instead, most studies that have been allowed to proceed focus on the potential negative effects of marijuana use, and particularly the smoking of marijuana. In this regard, smoking marijuana has been found to be associated with increased risks of cancer, lung damage, and pregnancy problems, but this research is itself a kind of smokescreen, because pointing out the dangers of smoking marijuana has little bearing as to the efficacy of marijuana in general (Pies, 2010, p. 8). Smoking will of course lead to the issues discussed above, because aside from whatever positive benefits one gets from marijuana consumption, burning and inhaling organic material will always damage the human respiratory system.

In addition to the physical harm that can come from smoking marijuana, there are also psychoactive effects of the drug that must be taken into account. While there is evidence to suggest that marijuana "can induce acute transient psychotic symptoms or an acute psychosis in some individuals," this effect is extremely rare when considering the sheer number of people who ingest marijuana regularly (Pies, 2010, p. 8; Schwartz et. al., 2003, p. 549; Ogborne, 2000, p. 1685). In fact, while a physician or psychiatrist should be careful when prescribing marijuana, the risk of potential psychotic symptoms is far less than the negative side effects associated with many commonly prescribed drugs. Because the risk of these extreme side effects is so low, it is not enough to justify a complete ban on marijuana.

Aside from legal and medical arguments against the prescription of marijuana as a medicine, there is also a cultural argument concerned with the patient-physician relationship directly. Specifically, as medicinal marijuana becomes more popular, physicians that are willing to prescribe it are increasingly being seen as single-issue providers rather than professionals who should be directly engaged in their patient's health. This tendency has been seen in states like Colorado, where just 15 physicians have been responsible for registering 49% of the total number of medical marijuana patients in the state (Nussbaum et. al., 2011, p. 1364). While this is definitely a problem and physicians should avoid contributing to this dissolution of the patient-physician relationship where possible, it is not enough to warrant prohibiting the prescription of marijuana, because this problem is a result of the current legal regime rather than the drug. The idea of doctors becoming semi-legal drug dealers is a frightening one, but ultimately it is the law that has created this situation and not the drug.

Having examined the arguments against the prescription of marijuana from a legal, medical, and cultural standpoint and found them wanting, it is now possible to discuss the positive reasons why it would acceptable, and even recommendable, to prescribe marijuana to a cancer patient. Although there are a number of benefits marijuana could have for a cancer patient, the three that will be focuses on here are its ability to reduce pain, increase appetite, and elevate mood. While none of these effects actually treat the cancer directly, they are extremely important for maintaining the well-being of the patient and thus increasing their chances of living.

As mentioned above, there has not been substantial research into the effects of marijuana due to the federal governments strict control over the substance. However, there has at least been some research on the active ingredients in marijuana, and this research has indicated that the cannibinoids contained in marijuana are useful for "anxiety reduction, appetite stimulation, nausea reduction, and pain relief" (Pies, 2010, p. 8). On top of this relatively minimal scientific data on the potential positive effects of marijuana are millennia of anecdotal and cultural evidence indicating its utility as a medicine.

In fact, marijuana is one of the oldest known medicines, and "indeed, the world's oldest surviving medical text, the Chinese Shen-nung Pen-tshao Ching, recommends marijuana to reduce the pain of rheumatism and to address digestive disorders" (Thomas, 2010, p. 1). In addition to its use in China, India, and elsewhere, marijuana was actually considered a useful medicine in the United States for decades, up until it was deemed a dangerous drug by the federal government. In fact, "between 1840 and 1900, more than 100 articles extolling… [END OF PREVIEW]

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What Makes Marijuana Okay to Prescribe to Cancer Patients?.  (2013, April 24).  Retrieved April 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/makes-marijuana-okay-prescribe-cancer/4549618

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"What Makes Marijuana Okay to Prescribe to Cancer Patients?."  Essaytown.com.  April 24, 2013.  Accessed April 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/makes-marijuana-okay-prescribe-cancer/4549618.