A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana

0:12
I would like to tell you about the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me in my years of working as a palliative care physician. This happened a couple of years ago. I was asked as a consultant to see a woman in her 70s — retired English professor who had pancreatic cancer. I was asked to see her because she had pain, nausea, vomiting … When I went to see her, we talked about those symptoms and in the course of that consultation, she asked me whether I thought that medical marijuana might help her. I thought back to everything that I had learned in medical school about medical marijuana, which didn’t take very long because I had learned absolutely nothing. And so I told her that as far as I knew, medical marijuana had no benefits whatsoever. And she smiled and nodded and reached into the handbag next to the bed, and pulled out a stack of about a dozen randomized controlled trials showing that medical marijuana has benefits for symptoms like nausea and pain and anxiety. She handed me those articles and said, “Maybe you should read these before offering an opinion … doctor.”

1:29
(Laughter)

1:30
So I did. That night I read all of those articles and found a bunch more. When I came to see her the next morning, I had to admit that it looks like there is some evidence that marijuana can offer medical benefits and I suggested that if she really was interested, she should try it. You know what she said? This 73-year-old, retired English professor? She said, “I did try it about six months ago. It was amazing. I’ve been using it every day since. It’s the best drug I’ve discovered. I don’t know why it took me 73 years to discover this stuff. It’s amazing.”

2:10
(Laughter)

2:11
That was the moment at which I realized I needed to learn something about medical marijuana because what I was prepared for in medical school bore no relationship to reality.

2:22
So I started reading more articles, I started talking to researchers, I started talking to doctors, and most importantly, I started listening to patients. I ended up writing a book based on those conversations, and that book really revolved around three surprises — surprises to me, anyway. One I already alluded to — that there really are some benefits to medical marijuana. Those benefits may not be as huge or as stunning as some of the most avid proponents of medical marijuana would have us believe, but they are real. Surprise number two: medical marijuana does have some risks. Those risks may not be as huge and as scary as some of the opponents of medical marijuana would have us believe, but they are real risks, nonetheless. But it was the third surprise that was most … surprising. And that is that a lot of the patients I talked with who’ve turned to medical marijuana for help, weren’t turning to medical marijuana because of its benefits or the balance of risks and benefits, or because they thought it was a wonder drug, but because it gave them control over their illness. It let them manage their health in a way that was productive and efficient and effective and comfortable for them.

3:37
To show you what I mean, let me tell you about another patient. Robin was in her early 40s when I met her. She looked though like she was in her late 60s. She had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for the last 20 years, her hands were gnarled by arthritis, her spine was crooked, she had to rely on a wheelchair to get around. She looked weak and frail, and I guess physically she probably was, but emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, she was among the toughest people I’ve ever met. And when I sat down next to her in a medical marijuana dispensary in Northern California to ask her about why she turned to medical marijuana, what it did for her and how it helped her, she started out by telling me things that I had heard from many patients before. It helped with her anxiety; it helped with her pain; when her pain was better, she slept better. And I’d heard all that before. But then she said something that I’d never heard before, and that is that it gave her control over her life and over her health. She could use it when she wanted, in the way that she wanted, at the dose and frequency that worked for her. And if it didn’t work for her, then she could make changes. Everything was up to her. The most important thing she said was she didn’t need anybody else’s permission — not a clinic appointment, not a doctor’s prescription, not a pharmacist’s order. It was all up to her. She was in control.

5:00
And if that seems like a little thing for somebody with chronic illness, it’s not — not at all. When we face a chronic serious illness, whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or lupus or cancer or diabetes, or cirrhosis, we lose control. And note what I said: “when,” not “if.” All of us at some point in our lives will face a chronic serious illness that causes us to lose control. We’ll see our function decline, some of us will see our cognition decline, we’ll be no longer able to care for ourselves, to do the things that we want to do. Our bodies will betray us, and in that process, we’ll lose control. And that’s scary. Not just scary — that’s frightening, it’s terrifying. When I talk to my patients, my palliative care patients, many of whom are facing illnesses that will end their lives, they have a lot of be frightened of — pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, fatigue, their impending mortality. But what scares them more than anything else is this possibility that at some point, tomorrow or a month from now, they’re going to lose control of their health, of their lives, of their healthcare, and they’re going to become dependent on others, and that’s terrifying.

6:17
So it’s no wonder really that patients like Robin, who I just told you about, who I met in that clinic, turn to medical marijuana to try to claw back some semblance of control. How do they do it though? How do these medical marijuana dispensaries — like the one where I met Robin — how do they give patients like Robin back the sort of control that they need? And how do they do it in a way that mainstream medical hospitals and clinics, at least for Robin, weren’t able to? What’s their secret? So I decided to find out.

6:54
I went to a seedy clinic in Venice Beach in California and got a recommendation that would allow me to be a medical marijuana patient. I got a letter of recommendation that would let me buy medical marijuana. I got that recommendation illegally, because I’m not a resident of California — I should note that. I should also note, for the record, that I never used that letter of recommendation to make a purchase, and to all of you DEA agents out there —

7:21
(Laughter)

7:22
love the work that you’re doing, keep it up.

7:25
(Laughter)

7:26
Even though it didn’t let me make a purchase though, that letter was priceless because it let me be a patient. It let me experience what patients like Robin experience when they go to a medical marijuana dispensary. And what I experienced — what they experience every day, hundreds of thousands of people like Robin — was really amazing. I walked into the clinic, and from the moment that I entered many of these clinics and dispensaries, I felt like that dispensary, that clinic, was there for me. There were questions at the outset about who I am, what kind of work I do, what my goals are in looking for a medical marijuana prescription, or product, what my goals are, what my preferences are, what my hopes are, how do I think, how do I hope this might help me, what am I afraid of. These are the sorts of questions that patients like Robin get asked all the time. These are the sorts of questions that make me confident that the person I’m talking with really has my best interests at heart and wants to get to know me.

Read More

The following two tabs change content below.
S. Jack Heffernan Ph.D. Funds Manager at HEFFX holds a Ph.D. in Economics and brings with him over 25 years of trading experience in Asia and hands on experience in Venture Capital, he has been involved in several start ups that have seen market capitalization over $500m and 1 that reach a peak market cap of $15b. He has managed and overseen start ups in Mining, Shipping, Technology and Financial Services.

Latest posts by S. Jack Heffernan Ph.D (see all)

You must be logged in to post comments :  
CONNECT WITH