Sunday, June 12, 2005

Murphy Brown and Medical Marijuana

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gonzalez v. Raich last week (the medical marijuana case) caused me to recall that I had written on this topic in the past. I had trouble finding the article but was able to uncover a more-or-less complete reprint that, apparently, is missing a first paragraph.

The article was written exclusively for The Metro Herald while I was on a medical hiatus from my role as entertainment editor for that newspaper. It appeared in November 1997, shortly after an episode of the CBS-TV series Murphy Brown in which the title character uses marijuana for medical purposes.

Recall that, in 1992, Murphy Brown made headlines outside the entertainment world when Vice President Dan Quayle, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on May 19 of that year, criticized the show (and the character) for condoning out-of-wedlock births and single-motherhood-by-choice. This was one of the defining moments of the culture wars of the early 1990s. (A year later, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead made some headlines of her own with an article entitled, "Dan Quayle Was Right" in The Atlantic.)

So Murphy Brown was no stranger to controversy when, on November 5, 1997, precisely one year since California voters had approved Proposition 215 (the medical marijuana initative, the show's episode focused on Murphy's need, as a breast-cancer patient, for medicinal marijuana.

What follows is (most of) the article I wrote immediately after viewing that episode of Murphy Brown.

According to a wire service story appearing in the Chicago Tribune, "In a statement issued a few hours before Wednesday's broadcast of the situation comedy, DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] Administrator Thomas Constantine said CBS and the show's creators were 'doing a great disservice' by trivializing drug abuse' and pandering to the libertarian supporters of an "open society" and to the myths of legalization.'"

After years of being ignored, I'm glad that someone is finally pandering to me (and other libertarians). We are the people who are more inclined to agree with the assessment of Ethan Nadelmann, director of The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy think tank based in New York.

Nadelmann called the episode a "cultural breakthrough," adding that "Candice Bergen and the producers of this episode brought a uniquely balanced perspective to the complex and controversial issue of medical marijuana for the first time ever on national, prime time television." Nadelmann, whose center recently published the book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts: A Review of the Scientific Evidence, explained that "Murphy Brown and her associates made it clear that marijuana should be, and can be dealt with honestly and responsibly, without sending the wrong message to our youth. For this, they should be congratulated."

This Murphy Brown episode had a particular poignancy to me, since I am currently going through chemotherapy -- though for a far less severe illness than Murphy's breast cancer. This explains my absence from the pages of The Metro Herald for the past two months, as I have had to cut back on many of my activities during my chemotherapy treatment cycle. (The prognosis is for the treatments to be finished in January with the prospect of a full cure -- so my theatre and music reviews will return soon.)

As it happens, the drugs that my doctor prescribed for nausea work just fine. This is not true for everyone, however, and I would not hesitate to use medicinal marijuana if it were necessary. I am a firm believer in the relegalization of marijuana, not only because it is medically valuable, but because it would reduce the human and monetary costs of the failed "War on Drugs."

Marijuana is one of the oldest medicinal herbs known to man. Around the world, people have used marijuana as medicine for at least five thousand years, with earliest records dating from the rule of Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in about 2737 B.C. In the United States, cannabis tinctures were widely used throughout the 19th century and until 1937 for ailments such as teething pain, arthritis, epilepsy, and insomnia. In recent years, doctors have recommended marijuana for those who need to relieve the intense nausea from cancer and AIDS drugs so they can eat, to stave off blindness from glaucoma, and to reduce the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.

The acceptance of the use of marijuana as medicine has been gaining steady momentum across the country. Last year [in 1996] two states passed voter initiatives -- Proposition 215 in California and Proposition 200 in Arizona -- making it legal to prescribe marijuana to patients for medical purposes. Earlier this year [1997], the Virginia General Assembly turned back a spirited effort by conservative legislators to repeal a 1979 law that tentatively allows "medical necessity" as a legal defense against criminal charges of marijuana possession. Spearheaded by AIDS activists and with the support of several members of the D.C. Council, a medicinal marijuana initiative petition is being circulated in Washington for a ballot measure to be presented to voters next year.

Naturally, there is still resistance to this effort to bring compassion into state and national drug laws. Some people are still confused about the issue, unsure what to think; others have never heard any "argument" but government propaganda about the drug war. An article in the New York Times Magazine observed that "California's experiment with medical marijuana could well turn out to be a turning point in the drug war, if for no other reason than it is rapidly transforming what has long been a simplistic monologue about drugs -- Just Say No -- into a complex conversation between the people and their government. So far, the most compelling voices in that conversation belong to the patients, the doctors, the growers and the cops who together are struggling to carve out a place for legal marijuana in the face of fierce opposition from Washington."

Reflecting the fact that the medical use of marijuana is quietly but definitively gaining support among Americans, the most remarkable aspect of the Murphy Brown episode was the fact that stodgy Jim Dial -- Murphy's conservative co-worker -- was the most insistent that liberal Murphy overcome her reluctance to try marijuana as a means to reduce her debilitating nausea.

Indeed, as dramatized on Murphy Brown, the medicinal marijuana issue is one that crosses party and ideological lines. Although libertarians have long been in the forefront of arguing for relegalization, both conservatives and liberals recognize marijuana's therapeutic value, and the large margin of victory for the initiatives in California and Arizona last year suggest that the average voter understands the arguments. "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man," concluded the DEA's own Administrative Law Judge, Francis Young.

Others who agree that relegalization is necessary -- or at least worth discussing -- include Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

Murphy Brown has played a valuable role by bringing the debate about medicinal marijuana into the living rooms of millions of Americans. The debate is bound to continue, and eventually the forces of compassion will win out over the forces of fear.

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