Oh, My Achin’ Back!
As medical marijuana programs have come into effect in various states, they have exhibited one surprising common factor: overwhelmingly the greatest number of users take it to alleviate pain, many of them young otherwise healthy males.
This appearance of healthy-looking young men has stirred the passions of the Drug Prohibitionists: “These are just stoners using the medical law to avoid arrests and just get high.” They view the medical use laws as simply a conspiracy to get around the drug control laws. Unfortunately, their argument shows almost total ignorance of medical treatment of pain and of the health problems of young men.
Pain is both one of the most widespread and hardest to diagnose and treat of medical conditions. Pain – from a thorn prick on a finger to the chronic intractable neuropathic aftermath of trauma – is a human universal; everyone has some experience with it. And the search for relief is also universal. Walk through any drugstore and see rack after rack filled with painkillers. Morphine is a staple in every operating suite. Vicodin (an opiate mixed with acetaminophen) is the most prescribed drug in the U. S. Pain presents doctors with two problems. First, it is hard to diagnose; medicine has not developed a painometer. Most tests are useless in detecting pain and doctors must rely on the patient’s own subjective reports. Second, while some pain (like that finger prick) is self-limiting and some may be relieved by surgery, a lot of it is incurable and chronic; it can only be alleviated by (often life-long) palliation. Many of the drugs used for that treatment are opioids with their attendant risks of overdose, dependency, and sedative interference with routine activities. When compared to the risks of the opioids and to the side effects of the OTC pain relievers (gastric bleeding and severe liver damage among others), the more benign marijuana seems the better choice. In its earlier life as elixir of cannabis its main uses included treatment of migraines and PMS and menstrual disorders.
Just as the Prohibitionists do not understand the problem of pain, they also do not understand the lives of many young men. While society is more egalitarian than ever before, careers based on physical strength are still predominantly male and young: construction, mining, oil and gas production, mining, transportation, to name a few; and young men are disproportionately active in athletics. These activities share an increased exposure to pain, both recurrent (and often daily) pain from muscular exertion and strain and more serious pain from trauma incurred during that activity. Sitting for a while in an emergency room or reading a civil court document will shock anyone by the numbers of injured young males.
Both parts of the Prohibitionists’ arguments are wrong: healthy-appearing young males do suffer di9sproportionately from pain. And the only way a doctor can diagnose pain is by talking to the patient. No lab test or high-tech scan objectively reveals pain (although they sometimes may show a possible cause for the reported discomfort). Their smoking gun is merely an illusion shaped by a cloud of ignorance.
I have focused on young men only because the Prohibitionists have focused on them. I have not intended to ignore the very real pains suffered by the rest of us. Young women have their special pains as well (and many of them engage in those occupations I listed as the domain of young men). They suffer from PMS and menstrual cramps. They strain muscles from lifting and carrying heavy toddlers, wet laundry, and loaded grocery bags (Yes, Dear, we men sometimes help with these chores a little bit). Just imagine the pains and traumas of an exotic dancer spending all day in those ridiculous but sexy high heels and doing stunts on the dance pole that would challenge an Olympian. Workers of both sexes spend all day hunched over a keyboard or on their feet as sales clerks. And as for my body that has withstood three-quarters of a century of wear and tear….
Yes, young men (and the rest of us) do have pain and marijuana can help them; and yes, doctors recommend they use marijuana without conducting full physical examinations, just as they recommend Tylenol or Vicodin. Pain and its treatment are part of everyday reality. Marijuana should not be forbidden and locked away; it should be on the open shelves between the aspirin and the acetomenaphen.