Legalizing Medical Marijuana
Virtually everyone is familiar with Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie. Myra Christopher (Foley Chair at the Center and former Center CEO) and Rosemary Flanigan (Retired Center Program Staff) have decided to regularly contribute to the Center for Practical Bioethics’ blog and call it “Tuesdays with Rosemary and Myra” (even though it won’t necessarily be published on a Tuesday). Read more about Rosemary and Myra at the bottom of this post.
Note: Today, Myra and Rosemary are discussing an article about the legalization of marijuana that appeared in National Geographic.
M: Rosemary, I’m sorry, but I did not get my homework done. So, you are going to have to tell me about the National Geographic article that we agreed to read. Good ethics start with good facts; so, give me the facts, Mam.
R: Okay, basically the article says that marijuana has been found to be helpful in cases of childhood epilepsy and other seizure disorders, and its use in relieving or ameliorating these tremors or whatever the child goes through has led many people to project its use for other medical purposes.
As you know, across the nation, states are legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, I believe that the argument for it has got to include further research about its use and side effects. My argument is that we need the research for the justification of its use for purposes other than those for which we have evidence that it works.
M: That’s a good argument, but we actually have very little evidence for most of what is done in medicine, and let’s talk about the fact that some states are also legalizing the use of marijuana for “recreational purposes”; so, what’s the distinction? It’s okay to smoke it for fun but not if it helps your back pain? Many people with other illnesses such a migraine claim to benefit from its use.
Rosemary, a dear friend of yours and mine who died of cancer a few years ago called me shortly before her death and said that her doctor had encouraged her to use marijuana to stimulate her appetite. She asked me if I thought that was ethically OK. I said for, “God’s sake, you are dying of cancer. If it helps you to eat a bite or two, what harm will be done?” And she said, “But it’s illegal!” I think that sometimes we confuse what is legal with what is ethical.
R: So, her doctor wanted her to eat it.
M: I don’t know if he wanted her to eat it or smoke it. Probably smoke it because I know that when people smoke marijuana they get “the munchies”, and I don’t know what difference it would make if someone smoked it or ate it. Do you think there is a difference?
R: No, no! I was just asking out of curiosity.
M: I assume that, like other drugs, marijuana affects different people in different ways. Rosemary, I am assuming that you have NOT smoked or eaten marijuana, but I have. When I was in my late 30s or early 40s, I smoked a marijuana cigarette.
I had not been part of the “drug culture” in my youth, and I wanted to know what it would be like. Actually, my experience was awful. I felt completely out of control, and anyone who knows me knows how important control is to me. I did not get hungry – just paranoid.
R: So like Bill Clinton, you didn’t inhale.
M: Oh no, I inhaled! I can’t imagine why people want to do it, but clearly many, many people like it, and many, many people think it helps them with health problems.
I struggle with why we are so twisted up about the use and abuse of marijuana, when our society literally runs on alcohol. I want you to tell me what the difference is in smoking marijuana and having a Manhattan.
R: Society has made alcohol acceptable. It is interesting how often a societal response to something can move the consideration of something from “right” to “wrong.”
M. Society may think alcohol consumption is morally acceptable, but there are more than 80,000 alcohol related deaths in the United States each year. I don’t want to sound like Carrie Nation, but given what you just said, is the issue about the legalization of marijuana really a moral issue rather than an ethical issue? And if so, why and what is the distinction?
R. Let me try an analogy. I have always justified the states’ use of capital punishment, but from a global view, capital punishment has come to seen as immoral and, therefore, ethically unjustifiable. Couldn’t the same be said of the use of marijuana, which has been seen as illegal because it is immoral, but with its legalization, has come a shift in the perception of its moral evaluation?
M. That could be true, but I’m not sure I accept that argument. In bioethics we often use the terms moral and ethical as though they are synonyms, but I want to be able to make a distinction between them because it is important to me that what is “ethical” is not determined by a public opinion poll. Nor do I want something to ethical because it is legal or illegal (slavery was legal). I want that determination made through an analysis of facts, values, motivations, consequences, etc.
R. True, true, true! But there are practices in our society that we allow when we do not know whether the effect of something will benefit or harm human nature -- such as the use of marijuana. hat’s why I’m arguing for further research within a society where it has been made legal.
M. So, are you saying that its use is ethical “for now” -- until proven to be harmful?
R. Yes, until we have more evidence.
M. I sort of hate to agree with you because this has been fun, but I do agree. The value we place on autonomy and personal freedom has to trump (I’ve come not to like using that word in the last few week but…) ambiguity about whether something is right or wrong. I wonder what our readers think.
About Rosemary and MyraFor several years before her retirement, Rosemary facilitated an online discussion group, primarily for ethics committee members, which had a faithful following. We hope some who participated and others will read our blog posts and respond with their thoughts on whatever subject we are writing about. We would also be grateful if you would provide suggestions for future blog topics. With your help, the two of us are moving into the 21st century, but for Pete’s sake, don’t expect us to tweet!
We have decided to write a regular blog for several reasons. First, there has never been a greater need for ethical reflection than there is today. We both agree about that, but we are very different people, and often disagree on issues. We hope it will be helpful for us to model respectful disagreement. In addition, we just finished writing a history of the Center which took us three years, and we enjoyed doing that so much that we need an excuse to continue writing together on a weekly basis. So, we don’t mind bothering you with our ideas.
I call myself a “philosophical Christian agnostic” and Rosemary is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. Rosemary taught high school English and philosophy at Rockhurst University. She is a stickler for the “King’s English” and proper grammar. I grew up in Texas and just like to talk. We are both old; I turned 68 in July; Rosemary is older. We both have had training and education in ethics, but Rosemary has a PhD. We have both worked in bioethics for many years, and we both LOVE to argue. As Rosemary says, “Doing ethics is all about argument.” But ethics is not about mean-spirited disrespectful exchanges that are so prevalent today in a “red-state/blue-state culture.” Through blogging, we hope that our agreements and disagreements will demonstrate that we can argue respectfully and still love and care about one another.