Mr. Mayor, this is no 'hoax'; state legislators should pass medical pot without delay
On Friday, Mayor Bloombergcalled medical marijuana “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.” From a mayor who has generally promoted public health policies based on sound medical and epidemiological evidence, such a comment is puzzling. It flies in the face of science.Bloomberg’s remarks came one day after the New England Journal of Medicine revealed the results of a doctors’ poll asking whether marijuana should be used to help alleviate symptoms in a woman with metastatic breast cancer: 76% said yes.The Journal’s findings are consistent with public polling in New York: 82% of all New Yorkers believe it’s a good idea to allow seriously or terminally ill people to use marijuana if recommended by a physician.Marijuana has been shown to relieve pain, muscle spasms and spasticity, as well as stimulate appetite and weight gain in patients with wasting syndromes. The evidence comes from medium and large, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials — the gold standard for medical research.The body of medical evidence has grown to suggest that marijuana can help relieve symptoms related to cancer and its treatment, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and symptoms related to HIV/AIDS. There is also emerging data suggesting that cannabinoids (the active biochemical components of cannabis) may slow the debilitating progression of multiple sclerosis.Compared with other medications, marijuana has low toxicity and is extremely safe. There is no known case of an overdose death from marijuana. In contrast, a review of deaths from the FDA Adverse Reporting System between 1997 and 2005 showed 196 deaths from medications to prevent nausea and vomiting and 118 deaths from medications that suppress muscle spasms.Opioid pain medications, which are widely prescribed, are now responsible for more accidental deaths than traffic accidents; almost 15,000 people died from prescription pain medications in 2008 alone, the last year for which data are available.In addition, the evidence regarding the safety and addiction potential of marijuana from states that have allowed marijuana to be prescribed medicinally have, to date, generally shown no increase in overall marijuana use.For example, a 2012 epidemiological study concluded that medical marijuana laws have had no discernible effects on adolescent marijuana use. Indeed, the study suggests that adolescent use may actually decrease with the passage of laws legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, perhaps because it is perceived as less glamorous.While marijuana use can become a problem for some, few users become dependent on it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only about 9% of those who try marijuana ever become addicted (a number likely inflated due to the illegal context of use), compared with 32% of tobacco and 15% of alcohol users.Many physicians in the New York medical community have been pushing for the passage of a bill pending before the Legislature that would allow health care practitioners to certify patients with serious, debilitating illnesses so that they may have access to a small amount of medical marijuana to relieve their symptoms. This is no hoax; it is compassionate care for real people.The FDA’s medication approval system is hopelessly politicized and broken. That’s precisely why 18 other states and the District of Columbia have chosen to pass medical marijuana legislation, prioritizing the well-being of their sickest residents over politics. New Yorkers suffering from serious or debilitating illnesses should not have to wait any longer for relief.Blinderman, M.D., is the director of adult palliative medicine services at Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Aggarwal, M.D., Ph.D., is vice chairman of New York Physicians for Compassionate Care and an associate member of the New York Academy of Medicine. The opinions expressed here are their own, not those of their employers.