Severe Pain by Clifford A. Schaffer
I have been an activist for drug law reform for about fifteen years now. I established the world's largest online library of research into the drug laws at http://www.druglibrary.org. The reason I became an activist has nothing to do with my own personal habits. I am generally a pretty sober type person, so there is probably no change in the laws that would make any significant difference in my life one way or the other. The reason I established the site is simply because I had read some of the major research on our drug laws and I just became astounded at their stupidity. There is no other area in which the law is so completely out of touch with the available research. And it isn't just medical marijuana that I am talking about -- it is all areas of the way in which our legal system deals with cannabis. The medical uses are just the best example of how ridiculous the laws really are.
My mother was always a very sober person as well. On the one occasion in her life that she had more than two glasses of wine with dinner, she decided she didn't like the effect and never had more than a single glass again. She was really one of those people who was on a "natural high" -- always cheery and optimistic no matter what troubles she had -- and she just didn't like intoxicants of any sort. She thought others could make their own decisions, and never condemned anyone for those decisions, but getting high on anything just wasn't for her.
When I became an activist for drug law reform she first expressed fear of what might happen to me. She was afraid that the US Government would come down on me hard for my activism and that they would trump up whatever charges were necessary to stop me. She felt this way for a year or so until one day she sat down and thought it over and realized that -- whether she agreed with my point of view or not -- if she had to have genuine fear of our government because her son was simply speaking his mind on a controversial subject then something was seriously wrong with our country. It was at that point that she began reading about our drug laws and eventually came to the conclusion that, not only was I right about our drug laws, it was absolutely vital that my activism continue.
A couple of years after I started my activism, she came down with a problem with some diseased cartilage in her rib cage. The surgery to correct it was not really major surgery, as surgery goes, and there was no serious threat to her life. But, when she woke up from the anesthesia, she reported a problem with pain in her side which she thought was more than just the normal post-surgery pain. After some examinations, her doctors reported that there had been nerve damage during the surgery. As a result, the entire right side of her rib cage felt like someone was holding a blow torch to it 24 hours a day. It radically changed her life. She could no longer wear any clothes that touched her ribs, and couldn't even take a normal shower because the pain of the water hitting it was unbearable. She couldn't even allow her grandchildren to give her a hug around that part of her body. The slightest touch would make her fall to the ground in pain. The pain was so bad that this normally determinedly cheery woman called me several times asking me if I would understand if she committed suicide.
Over the years, the doctors tried numerous medications and treatments for her pain. There were topical ointments, pills of all descriptions, injections, TENS units, and even other surgery. Her inability to get opioid pain killers was another story in itself, caused primarily by the refusal of doctors to prescribe them because of their fear of the DEA. In the course of her pain treatments, she traveled all over the US to find new medical treatments. On two occasions, the doctors punctured her lung and once they stopped her heart. When her heart stopped, the doctors gave her CPR to bring her around and she woke up screaming at them to kill her -- because they were beating on the ribs that were causing her pain in the first place. She later left instructions that, no matter what happened, she should never be given CPR again -- she would rather die.
Only three things ever worked to give her consistent pain relief. The first was opioid medications. Opioid medications helped her but they never did completely eliminate the pain. Opioids just suppressed the pain to the point where it was more bearable and she could manage to live a somewhat normal life. She had huge trouble getting those because of the same kind of ignorance and fear that drives the laws against marijuana. Her doctors were afraid to prescribe them because any doctor who prescribes them in adequate quantities is likely to come under intense scrutiny from the DEA. As I said, that is another entire story in itself, and caused me to co-found a national organization of chronic pain patients just to address that problem.
The second was aerobic exercise. In her 70s, she would do intense aerobic exercise to a level that would drop most twenty-year-old athletes. If she did enough exercise her body would generate enough endorphins to kill the pain and allow her to sleep. But, obviously, aerobic exercise is a limited solution, particularly for a woman in her 70s.
The third thing that gave her pain relief was marijuana. She reported that it was the only treatment she ever had that COMPLETELY eliminated the pain. She said that she found it quite strange because some of the other medicines would reduce the pain to the point where it was bearable for a while, but none had ever just completely erased the pain as if it had never been there in the first place. After she reported that, I ran across some medical research which may have explained it. Marijuana contains at least one chemical that acts as a pain killer at the spinal level, not the brain level. Thus, it can kill pain for some people without the same risk of addiction that one would have from opioids.
She eventually decided that she didn't want to take marijuana for her own reasons. She didn't like the taste of it, and couldn't find any way that she could take it that completely eliminated the taste. Also, she didn't like the "high". As I mentioned above, she really didn't like any alteration of her normal mental state and never did get used to the mental effects of it. With every medicinal drug, there is a list of benefits and drawbacks that every patient has to judge for their own situation. However, to the end of her life, she did remain convinced from her own experience that marijuana was nothing less than a medical miracle for at least some people. She did wish that the US Government would allow proper research into marijuana so perhaps the compounds that eliminated her pain could be isolated and made into a medicine that might relieve the pain without producing the "high" that she did not like.
But whether anyone agrees with the medical value of marijuana, I have always felt that there is a larger point. Let's suppose that some of these sick people were growing tobacco in their own backyards because they thought that tobacco cigars made them feel better. We all know, of course, that tobacco is not a medicine and, in fact, can be quite harmful. Would anyone seriously suggest that the best way to protect those sick people would be to arrest them, seize their property, and put them through an expensive prosecution? Clearly not.
The larger point is that it doesn't make any medical or moral sense to punish sick people for trying to relieve their own suffering -- even if you disagree with their choice of medicine. They may not be doing what you or I would do in their situation, but for God's sake just leave them alone and let them deal with their suffering the best way they can.
Thanks for your continuing work to bring rationality to our drug laws. I have always firmly believed that one day most of the people in this country will see our drug laws for the insanity that they are and that we will win the fight for reform.