Protect Patients From Politics

You may know me as a television talk-show host, but here in 40 states, I am also a criminal. My crime? Using the medicine that has allowed me to lead a normal life, despite having multiple sclerosis: medical marijuana.

Being diagnosed with MS in 1999 felt like a death sentence. I doubted my ability to function as a father, son, brother, friend, talk-show host and producer. I honestly couldn't see a future. I had always taken excellent care of my body; I'd worked out, followed a healthy diet and looked the picture of health. What no one could see was the mind-numbing pain that seared through my legs, as if I were being stabbed with hot pokers.

My doctors wrote me prescriptions for some of the strongest painkillers available. I took Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin on a regular basis, two at a time, every three or four hours. I was knowingly risking overdose just trying to make the pain bearable. In my desperation, I even tried morphine. Yet these powerful, expensive drugs brought no relief.

I couldn't sleep. I was agitated; my legs kicked involuntarily in bed, and the pain was so bad I found myself crying in the middle of the night. And all these heavy-duty narcotics made me nearly incoherent; I couldn't take them when I had to work because they turned me into a zombie. Worse, these drugs are all highly addictive. I did not want to become a junkie, wasted and out of control. I spiraled deeper into a black hole of depression.

In Climbing Higher, my book on living with MS, I write in detail about the severe mental and physical pain that I experienced. It was so bad that I twice attempted suicide.

Finally, someone suggested that I try smoking a little marijuana before going to bed, saying that it might help me fall asleep. Skeptical but desperate, I tried it. Three puffs and within minutes the excruciating pain in my legs subsided. I had my first restful sleep in months. The effect was miraculous.

But the federal government classifies marijuana in the same category as LSD, PCP and heroin -- considered unsafe to use even under medical supervision. Physicians are allowed to prescribe cocaine, morphine and methamphetamine, but not marijuana.

Ninety-nine percent of marijuana arrests are made by local police, under state law -- but the states can decide not to arrest medical-marijuana patients. Ten states now protect medical-marijuana patients from arrest, the latest being Montana, whose medical-marijuana law passed in November with 62 percent of the vote. Yet I'm still a criminal.

Medical and public-health organizations agree that medical marijuana can be beneficial. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, released a study commissioned by the White House that had found marijuana effective in combating pain, nausea and other symptoms afflicting patients with MS, cancer and other illnesses. The American Public Health Association's policy statement summarizes the extensive research showing marijuana's effectiveness, and adds: "Marijuana has an extremely wide acute margin of safety for use under medical supervision. ... Greater harm is caused by the consequences of its prohibition than possible risks of medicinal use."

Patients struggling for their lives against such illnesses as MS, cancer and AIDS should not be treated as criminals. We need to get beyond politics. We need more research into marijuana's medicinal effects, and we should heed the research already available. The federal government should change marijuana's classification so that physicians can prescribe it.

But while we wait for the federal government to act -- which, sadly, may take some time -- the states should take action to protect patients.

Because of medical marijuana, I am still alive -- and leading a far more fruitful life than before. I am not alone. There are thousands of patients like me, and we should not be treated as criminals.

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