Treatment Denied in NY? Cannabis Should Be Available to Patients Who Need It

FILE - This Nov. 8, 2012 file photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. President
FILE - This Nov. 8, 2012 file photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. President Barack Obama says he won't go after Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana. In a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC, Obama is asked whether he supports making pot legal. He says, "I wouldn't go that far." (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

Eighteen other states -- including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey -- now provide patients access to medical marijuana. It is time to allow New Yorkers to benefit from this ancient medicinal plant. I've spent my career researching and prescribing drugs. After three years of working with some of the country's leading experts for three years on a book about the benefits and risks of cannabis, I know that the scientific research supports the safety and therapeutic value of this medicine, especially when compared to other prescription medications.

We have long known that cannabis can help patients manage the side effects of chemotherapy by reducing nausea and stimulating appetite, making it tremendously useful in cancer and AIDS patients. Because it acts as a muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory, it can reduce the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, paraplegia, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease.

A growing body of research now suggests that cannabis can kill some cancer cells and slow the growth of blood supply to tumors. Most people are familiar with THC, the compound in pot that makes people feel high, but cannabis has many other components with medicinal benefits. In particular, CBD (cannabidiol) which can help to treat seizures and psychosis.

Cannabis is not only therapeutic, it is significantly safer and less toxic than prescription pain medication. There is no known lethal dose, compared with opiates, which now cause more overdose deaths than car accidents. Cannabis has lower rates of addiction (9 percent) than pain medication (23 percent), alcohol (15 percent), or cigarettes (32 percent).

As with any medication, medical marijuana should not be used by all patients. People with compromised pulmonary function shouldn't smoke due to lung irritation, and people with a history of psychosis can have an adverse reaction to THC. But just as physicians evaluate the appropriateness and safety of other medications for each patient, they can perform a risk/benefit analysis of medicinal cannabis.

Last June, the New York State Assembly passed a bill that would establish a safe and tightly regulated system allowing healthcare providers to consider medical marijuana for their patients who have serious, debilitating, or life-threatening conditions. The entire program -- from the registration of patients to the production and dispensing of cannabis -- would be carefully regulated by the State Department of Health to insure that only those patients who need medical marijuana will have access. This bills makes sure that a healthcare professional, together with his or patient -- not the government -- decides the best treatment for serious medical conditions, including recommending medicinal cannabis.

Denying doctors the right to consider this treatment and denying patients' access to medicine that can alleviate their pain and suffering is unjust, unethical, and illogical. It should not be a crime for doctors to help their patients find relief through a medicine as safe and effective as cannabis.