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  • The Medical Marijuana Mess: A Prescription for Fixing a Broken Policy

    In this Brookings Essay, John Hudak writes on the uncertainty and inconsistency surrounding federal and state laws for medical marijuana use, distribution, and research, which is placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of suffering patients, their families, and the people trying to help them.

    IN 2013, PATRICK AND BETH COLLINS WERE DESPERATE.Thirteen‐year‐old Jennifer, the younger of their two children, faced a life‐threatening situation. In response, the Collins family took extreme measures—sending Jennifer thousands of miles away in the company of her mother. Beth and Jennifer became refugees from a capricious government whose laws threatened Jennifer’s health, the family’s safety, and the life they had built together.

    Beth and Jennifer did not run from crime or war or famine. They did not flee from some country ruled by a murderous despot to a less dangerous place. They are Americans who found it necessary to move from their home in Virginia to another state in order to seek treatment for Jennifer’s serious medical condition—a treatment that was illegal according to the laws of both Virginia and the federal government.

    And so, in December 2013, Beth and Jennifer said goodbye to Patrick and to Jennifer’s older sister, Alexandra. They moved to Colorado, joining thousands of other people who’d gone there wanting to avail themselves of one version or another of this taboo treatment: marijuana‐based medicine. Their hope? That Colorado cannabis would do what prescription drugs could not—treat Jennifer’s epilepsy.

    AN ANCIENT, HONORABLE MEDICAL TRADITIONPatients like Jennifer Collins seek out medical marijuana every day. In the United States, it is currently only available in certain states, for certain people, and under specific conditions, though the number of venues where it can be obtained has been growing ever since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. At the time of writing, 22 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Privately owned but state licensed and regulated dispensaries dole out medical marijuana in most of these places.Jeffrey Kahn, a congregational rabbi, owns one such supplier—the Takoma Wellness Center, which is described on its website as “D.C.’s Family‐Run Medical Marijuana Dispensary.” A five minute walk from the owner’s home, it also happens to be located just six miles away from the White House. Like many such owners, Rabbi Kahn feels he is providing his customers with a critical medical treatment. In fact, his decision to go into this business was inspired in part by the suffering of his in‐laws. When he opened the Center, he dedicated it to them. Their 1952 honeymoon photo—which could double for a black‐and‐white beach movie still—hangs in a prominent position across from the welcome desk. A half century after that photo was taken he watched them suffer and eventually die from serious medical issues. His father‐in‐law had spent decades battling multiple sclerosis—a battle occasionally alleviated by puffing on black‐market marijuana. His mother‐in‐law had lung cancer. The doctor who diagnosed it told her she might be able to mitigate the devastating effects of chemo and radiation by using marijuana. But she died before the family could find a dealer.

    Those experiences gave Rabbi Kahn a new perspective on pot, and a desire to serve those in need of it. Now he has patients suffering from the same illnesses his in‐laws died of who are finding relief at his dispensary.

    The federal government, however, views the rabbi not as a health care provider offering much needed treatment to the afflicted and the vulnerable, but as a drug dealer. A mild‐mannered, middle‐aged gentleman, Rabbi Kahn is a devoted husband and father who bears no resemblance to the stereotypical marijuana dealer. Nor does his dispensary resemble the stereotype of a drug‐dealer’s place of business. The Takoma Wellness Center looks part pharmacy, part acupuncture clinic. Though the smell is quite different—the aroma of disinfectant replaced by the scent of grade‐A cannabis—the Center is clean; it is welcoming; it is relaxing. The waiting area could double for that of a doctor’s office, and the experience of being in the consultation room with Rabbi Kahn is very much like what happens in a doctor’s office as well. Rabbi Kahn spends an hour or longer with each new patient, getting to know her, her diagnosis, and her previous experience with cannabis. Only then does he begin to map out a plan of action.

    Takoma Wellness may be less than three years old, and its business an exotic novelty in the District of Columbia, but Rabbi Kahn is part of a long line of healers—some of them religious leaders like himself—who have been treating the sick with cannabis for millennia. During earlier eras, marijuana was much more commonly recommended for medical purposes than it is now. Five thousand years ago the Chinese, for example, were using cannabis as an appetite stimulant, pain reliever, and anesthetic. British physicians used cannabis for a variety of illnesses and disorders, even administering it to Her Majesty Queen Victoria for pain. As recently as the early 20th century, doctors in the United States, too, found medical applications for marijuana, using it as an anti‐convulsive drug, a pain reliever, and an anti‐inflammatory.

    The medical marijuana mess: a prescription for fixing a broken policy, Brookings Essay, March 22, 2016, by John Hudak