Chronic Pain Health — 16 August 2012

I have been smoking medical marijuana for the past four months.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, I turned to medical marijuana for relief from chronic pain.

For me the decision was easy, as I had begun the process of weaning myself off the opioid analgesics that I’d used for the past five years. The opioids clearly saved my life, but over the past year I grew increasingly unable to tolerate their side effects.

A few months ago I went to my favorite medical marijuana dispensary in Berkeley, CA, only to find that it was told by the federal government to shut its doors because it was too close to an elementary school.

Like other patients, I had to scramble to find another dispensary that carried my brand of medical marijuana. I have a prescription from my physician for the use of medical marijuana, as well as a state identification card that I have to show to gain entrance into a dispensary.

Recent research completed at the Universities of California, San Diego, San Francisco and Davis supports the growing body of evidence showing that medical marijuana helps reduce the pain of many disorders. However, many states where medical marijuana is legal do not include pain as an approved diagnosis for medical marijuana.

This, combined with the war on drugs and opioid analgesics, suggests a deep and widespread prejudice still alive in the U.S. against pain patients.

The War against Marijuana Dispensaries

According to some reports, as many as 600 medical marijuana dispensaries have been closed in California since late 2011. This is particularly disturbing because while President Obama seems to support the regulated use of medical marijuana, the behavior of his Justice Department towards dispensaries suggests the president is playing both sides of the street; verbally aligning himself with patients in need of pain relief and the 80% of Americans who support medical marijuana, but simultaneously siding with law enforcements efforts to crackdown on dispensaries.

Federal prosecutors in California insist that they are not targeting individual patients, their caregivers or small dispensaries operating as nonprofits. They insist that they are only going after the largest and most lucrative operations that flout the nonprofit aspect of medical marijuana laws.

While the Feds claim they are only shutting down dispensaries that run afoul of the law, Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access points out that “in reality the vast majority of these clinics were operating legally.”

The administration’s two track approach to medical marijuana leaves not only dispensaries in limbo, but also the millions of patients who look to marijuana for relief from various medical problems. This becomes far more complicated when the war on pain patients and opioid analgesics is factored into the story.

Bias against Patients in Pain

The Institute of Medicine’s 2011 report on Pain in America supports the need for more and better research into the treatment of chronic pain for 100 million Americans. Yet there is a deep and unbending attitude among many policy makers that suggests a bias against believing that people really do suffer from intractable pain. The belief seems to be that we should simply get over it and not look to substances or drugs that provide relief.

Marijuana long ago was stigmatized as the “stoners” drug of choice. Opioid analgesics are also currently being stigmatized and there are increasingly misguided efforts to make these medications difficult for pain patients to obtain. People in pain live with enough anxiety. We certainly don’t need more.

Also implicated in this is my belief that there remains a long entrenched negative attitude towards any substance that causes people to experience an altered state of being. Though the need to do this has been with us from the dawn of time, there is a corresponding anathema among many to the use of these substances. All we have to do is look at the efforts to control certain substances, particularly in the preceding century. The list of hysterical crackdowns over the last 100 years is daunting: cocaine, demon weed, alcohol, smack, rock, crystal meth, downers, uppers, speed, and now opioid analgesics — and a turn toward hectoring those who try to relieve pain by selling us medical marijuana.

It is not difficult for people who live with chronic pain to see these events as related, pernicious and aimed squarely at us.

Where does this leave those of us who have turned from opioids to marijuana in the 17 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal? How do we stop the Feds from shutting down legitimate dispensaries?

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) recently introduced legislation in Congress to stop federal prosecutors from going after more cannabis dispensaries in California. I would urge all pain patients to contact their representatives and ask them to co-sponsor Lee’s bill. The more co-authors the more likely such legislation stands a chance, but don’t hold your breath as the Tea Party holds sway in Congress.

Why should we have to struggle so much for human dignity, social justice and human rights?

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn lives in the east bay of San Francisco where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog can be found here

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About Author

Mark Maginn, Columnist

Mark is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Mr. Maginn: This is very well written and informative. Thank you for covering such an important topic.