This is the long version of this piece (1490 words)...posted exclusively here on Open Salon.
Photo by Chris Freitag 2009 - NJ medical marijuana activist Jim Miller remebers his wife Cheryl.
Pot option left out of the Health Summit
Commentary by Chris Goldstein
A community based health solution that started in 1996, currently accessible by millions of Americans, has been left completely out of the recent national conversation on healthcare. Medical marijuana is legal in fourteen states, New Jersey being the most recent. The quiet truth is that domestically grown, medical grade pot is already an important part of our country’s everyday healthcare.
Though there is no mention of it from most federal elected officials, all local and national polling shows our country in support of medical marijuana, with numbers increasing every year. Realistically, cannabis has always been available in every state, legally or otherwise.
The voters of Nancy Pelosi’s home district benefit from some of the finest regulated medical cannabis in the world. But you will not hear mention of this green solution from her.
Then again, Pelosi and other savvy politicians know that the present debate on healthcare really isn’t about ‘care’ at all. The 2400 page bill is more of an infinitely nuanced look how America offers the best medical care money can buy – with few who can afford it.
Clearly, this bill isn’t some fix for the best cost to individuals at all. It is about calculating and charging the maximum cost that can be absorbed by the American people as a whole, without making us utterly bankrupt.
Health care in this country is a massive for-profit enterprise. Not news. What is news is that as the multi-billion dollar insurance industry tries to legally entrench itself, medical marijuana access works with the polar opposite mindset, but still makes a profit.
The media and politicians refer to citizens now the same way that health insurance companies view us: “Consumers.” Formerly known as “patients” or those who seek and need real-life healthcare.
When we go into an Emergency Room to get stitches we think of ourselves as a patient and hope that staff does too. But in the end, the healthcare industry sees those threads binding flesh together merely as a consumer purchase.
So if every politician, lobbyist, hospital, doctor, reporter and insurance company gets to call ‘patients’ ‘consumers’ from now on then how come everyone who uses medical marijuana is called a ‘patient’? Can they not be ‘consumers’ too? Let’s try it out later.
Although not perfect, the medical marijuana industry is offering a better model of care and cost than the traditional medical care system. Several well-documented local networks allow severely ill people battling expensive conditions, such as cancer and AIDS, to get their medical cannabis for no cost at all. Because the medication literally grows it is often given away freely to those in need without any bureaucracy, red tape or religious charity.
The vast arrays of non-profits, for-profits and semi-underground businesses that serve the state regulated (and not regulated yet) medical marijuana programs have created an important set of innovations. Community gardens, co-ops, sliding scale dispensaries, home delivery and home cultivation assistance have all contributed to affordable care.
These models have provided legal marijuana used for pain management, nausea management, mental health conditions and tough to treat illnesses at prices patients can afford.
Today, medical cannabis offers sustainable care for sustainable prices while treating the most difficult medical conditions: Exactly the ideal politicians in Washington are claiming to work towards.
The medical marijuana laws, unfortunately, vary widely depending on the state. For example: Oregon accepts Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. But in New Jersey and other states PTSD does not allow legal access. Solid scientific evidence for this application of marijuana exists and the Israeli Government currently operates a PTSD/cannabis program for their soldiers. Because of politics and not science the lists of qualifying conditions for state authorized medical marijuana programs are not consistent.
The amount of cannabis individuals can access also varies with 24oz every 60 days in WA and OR, 8oz at any time in CA and just 2oz every 30 days under New Jersey’s new law. Prices and quality also range widely from state to state.
Again: Not perfect. But the modern American medical marijuana industry is not even 15 years old and currently provides quality care for a price that is hard to beat.
Medical marijuana consumers find relief from a medication that is often a fraction of the cost of pharmaceuticals that they were already taking. Unlike many pharmacy drugs, which are themselves toxic and have deleterious side effects over time, cannabis is non-toxic and safe for a lifetime of use. Some individuals wean themselves off of opiate pain medications or even anti-depressants with cannabis therapy.
Many wonder if those facts alone represent a threat to Big Pharma and if the industry has some agenda against medical cannabis. Though they could tap their prodigious profits to oppose marijuana, they simply do not.
Some are speculating that Big Pharma is waiting for the day they can use marijuana as part of their profit model. The benefits would be significant. From whole plant material to cannabinoid derivatives and plant extracts Big Pharma is in many ways the best equipped to reap a harvest of nationally legal cannabis.
But the worst may be true: The industry and government may be so ultra focused on themselves that medical marijuana is simply not in their field of vision.
Ken Wolski is a Registered Nurse and is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (where the author serves on the Board). Ken was truly instrumental in getting the NJ law passed and has been critical of some of the restrictions in the final version such as the Garden State being singular in not allowing patients any provisions to grow at home.
Wolski’s view on the prospect of nationally legal medical marijuana: “To allow patients to produce their own medicine and individually adjust the dosage to control their symptoms, safely, under medical supervision is a wonderful advance in American health care. It will produce tremendous savings both to the patient and to the state. It will also refocus the health care industry away from the pharmaceutical industry and the health insurance industry and a back towards the patient, where the focus of health care belongs.”
Wolski isn’t alone as a medical professional in support of therapeutic cannabis. A myriad of groups from the American College of Family Physicians to the NJ State Nurses Association actively support the issue.
Disturbingly though Americans who find therapeutic relief from cannabis are regularly discriminated against by medical professionals and services. Cheryl Shuman of Los Angeles was recently profiled on KTLA. Because she legally consumes marijuana she was denied important cancer tests.
After the piece aired Shuman’s insurance provider, Aetna, contacted her to work it out. Still, individuals, including MS patients, have reached out to local advocacy groups about being dropped from their pain management doctors because of testing positive for THC.
Though regulated under state laws, marijuana remains in Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Advocates and some federal politicians like Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul have pleaded for cannabis to be moved into Schedule II. This category recognizes medical value for a substance.
While the healthcare industry, federal regulations and most politicians on Capitol Hill ignore therapeutic marijuana; our front-line medical care systems and ‘consumers’ face the issue every day.
The American medical cannabis industry has been essentially left out of these national healthcare discussions and debates simply because the young, semi-legal group have not found their collective influence in Washington yet. But watch out.
The greenest of industries has seen an income stride in the last 5 years. They could pool their resources for a political voice much akin to the healthcare industry. Some medical marijuana millionaires have even been recruiting employees from the DC non-profit policy reform pool.
Yet nothing could match the health insurance and medical industry spending in pay-to-play politics. Their influence in the current federal legislative process appears to mimic the involvement Enron had with energy policy at the Bush White House.
We blacked out parts of California with that political/business mess. There would be truly ominous repercussions nationally if the healthcare bubble were pushed to burst. That is what politicians are trying to avoid. But they are simultaneously trying to ensure the long-term profits of the industry.
As this for-profit healthcare industry charges ahead those who operate medical marijuana dispensaries in California, especially in Los Angeles, have been targeted solely for being profitable at all.
Still rather quietly, millions of Americans will continue to find relief, living and dying in less pain with medical marijuana. They include many whose finances were already destroyed by illness or could never afford insurance at all. Cannabis could be cushioning the blow of our current health crisis. Medical marijuana is a great comfort to many.
Should the healthcare industry go bust, the solution overlooked in the current debate is already weaving a green safety net to care for Americans.
Medical marijuana should be a part of our national healthcare conversation.