The case for medicinal marijuana

by on 1 February, 2010

The debate in Australia needs to begin, writes Chris Browne.


It’s a bit taboo, particularly in Australia, to talk about legalising a prohibited substance. 

With debate raging around the world about the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, it is high time we had that same debate here, too. 

Recently I have been reading a plethora of articles from the United States regarding the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes and wondered why we can’t discuss it so openly here. 

But in mid-January Australian columnist and former newsreader Tracey Spicer broke convention and wrote a powerful argument in favour of the legalisation of medicinal marijuana. 

She argued succinctly for the debate to begin in Australia at a political level as a matter of urgency. I couldn’t agree more. 

Tracey reported that cannabis has been used in Chinese medicine since the 3rd Century AD. It is now used for medicinal purposes in many western countries and increasingly throughout the United States. The recent acceptance by the US Department of Justice to recognise state laws that legalise medicinal marijuana is yet another step in the right direction in that country. 

But what about Australia? 

The Herald Sun reported in January that a group of Victorian doctors are seeking approval to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers with Sativex – a marijuana-based mouth spray. Their chances of success are, at best, slim. 

This is because of the social and political taboo surrounding ‘drugs’. Yes, the campaigns against the recreational use of street drugs are necessary. But what many people don’t consider in the marijuana debate is that GPs are already prescribing ‘drugs’ that are notoriously worse. 

Drugs like morphine, which is a highly addictive opiate, or over-the-counter nasal decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine, which is an amphetamine, are just two examples. 

These types of drugs are dangerous and have the well-documented capacity to be fatal. However, when administered in measured doses as prescribed by medical professionals, the risks are often manageable and serious side-effects are infrequent. 

The same can be said for marijuana.  

Early last year while in Latin America I met a fascinating Peruvian man who claimed that using marijuana in measured doses as a medicine had greatly reduced his dependence on epilepsy medication and decreased the frequency of seizures. 

I’m not a neurologist and have no way of qualifying the viability of using marijuana to treat epilepsy, but I must say his argument was convincing. This was especially so after he invited me to view his extensive collection of published information on the medicinal use of marijuana that he had consulted prior to trialling the alternative treatment. 

In many nations around the world, marijuana is legally used in various forms (in modern medicine it is rarely smoked) to help sufferers of diseases including cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. 

It is time that we removed the stoner movie stereotype of the giggling, red-eyed, snack-eating teenagers from our minds and instead began a rational debate both in society and in the Federal Parliament on the role that marijuana can play in medicine. 

The longer we wait for political leaders and medical professionals to discuss the use of alternative medicines like marijuana, the longer more Australians have to suffer as a result of their inaction.

Chris Browne is Editor-in-Chief of Menzies House.

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