Right: cannabis has been shown to be affective in the relief of cancer symptoms, but there is still opposition to the decriminalisation of such treatment on the grounds that it would be "the thin end of the wedge" which would eventually see marijuana become a legal drug.
Arguments in favour of marijuana being made legally available for medical purposes
1. Marijuana is an effective means of reducing the distress of those suffering a number of diseases
Marijuana has been shown to beneficial effects in the treatment of a number of serious conditions.
Anecdotal evidence for the beneficial effects of marijuana eventually led to the design of controlled scientific studies to examine the benefits of marijuana compared to other treatments. A 1997 review of 6059 marijuana-related articles in the medical literature revealed 194 titles on antiemetic properties, 56 on glaucoma, 10 on multiple sclerosis, 23 on appetite, and 11 on palliative or terminal care. Numerous studies have been performed since that time, with most concentrating on the analgesic properties of cannabis and its derivatives.
The Cancer Council of New South Wales has stated that cannabis may be of medical benefit to cancer patients where conventional treatments are unsuccessful, in the following circumstances: in relieving nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy; as an adjunctive analgesic in patients with moderate to severe pain; and/or as an appetite stimulant for cancer patients experiencing weight loss and muscle wasting.
Studies have shown that cannabis can relieve muscle pain and spasticity in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and can control tremors in multiple sclerosis animal models. THC has been shown to reduce intraocular pressure in laboratory animals and humans who have glaucoma.
2. Those using marijuana for medical purposes should not be subject to prosecution
Supporter of decriminalising the medical use of marijuana claim that it is unjust to prosecute and punish people who are merely trying to find relief from the distressing symptoms of a disease.
In an opinion piece published in The Sudbury Sun on May 10, 2011, Linda Crabtree wrote, 'Why do I have to break the law and risk my credibility and reputation to find relief from pain?
If you live in constant pain or have any one of many conditions that can be relieved with the use of marijuana, you'll know why I'm writing this column.'
Ms Crabtree went on to explain, 'I have lived with chronic burning neuropathic pain for almost 20 years. At first I didn't think anyone could live like this, but I have and I've met many people in the same boat. It's a tough way to live. It's stressful; it affects your work, your family and your life. You just hurt all the time.
And then you find something that helps relieve the pain and lets you live a fairly normal life, but you have to jump hoops so high to get it, it's heartbreaking.'
'Stuart', one of the terminally ill patients whose situation was used as a case study by the New South Wales inquiry into the medical use of marijuana was quoted as saying 'Why do I need to commit a criminal act to help myself when so many countries ... have embraced the values of marijuana for medical purposes? If the politicians won't let me die with dignity, at least let me live with some.'
It has been noted that other medications when used in the medical treatment of pain and other symptoms are legally available, though when used recreationally they are outside the law. This is true, for example, of a wide range of opium-derived drugs. Critics argue that it is unjust to make one form of treatment legally available and not another.
3. Medical marijuana would only be made available under controlled conditions
It has been noted that under the terms recommended by the New South Wales Committee, marijuana would only be available in limited quantities and only to those certified by their physician to be suffering from a terminal disease of HIV.
The Committee's recommendations include the following provisions. '[T]hat the defence [against prosecution for marijuana use]be restricted to persons listed on a register of 'authorised cannabis patients and carers', with eligibility contingent upon certification by the patient's treating specialist medical practitioner that the patient is diagnosed with a specified condition.'
The Committee also notes that the amount of cannabis that could be legally consumed would be strictly regulated. '[A] complete defence [would be made available] from arrest and prosecution for the use of cannabis and possession of up to 15 grams of dry cannabis or equivalent amounts of other cannabis products, and equipment for the administration of cannabis, by the patient.' The same immunity from prosecution for this 15 gram amount has also been recommended for the patients' caregivers.
4. Medical marijuana would not result in the legalisation of recreational marijuana
The New South Wales Committee which has recommended the legalisation of marijuana for medical use made it plain that it did not support the recreational use of the drug and does not see its medical use as a precursor to more general use.
The committee's chairwoman, National Party upper house member Sarah Mitchell, has said, 'We recognise the risks and negative effects of crude cannabis use, particularly via smoking, and by no means do we endorse the recreational use of cannabis.'
The Committee did not recommend its use for chronic pain or decriminalising marijuana cultivation for personal use, and acknowledged the issue of obtaining cannabis was difficult.
It has also been noted that approving the medical use of marijuana does not automatically lead to increased recreational use within the community.
Referring to the American situation, it has been noted that the fear that medical marijuana laws would increase adolescent recreational use of the drug has not come true.
According to the official California Student Survey teen marijuana use in California rose steadily from 1990 to 1996, but began falling immediately after the medical-marijuana law was passed in 1996.
Among ninth graders, marijuana use in the last six months fell by more than 40 percent from 1995-96 to 2001-02 (the most recent available figures).
It has also been noted that the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse released by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, indicates that medical marijuana reform does not lead to increased non-medical marijuana use.
5. A majority within the Australian community support the use of marijuana for medical purposes
It has been noted that a very large majority of the Australian public is in support of marijuana being made legally available for medical purposes.
The Committee's report included the following observation, 'The Committee notes public opinion in relation to medical cannabis, with 69 per cent of people in a recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey indicating that they support legislation to allow medical use of cannabis, matched with 74 per cent of participants showing support for clinical trials investigating the benefits of cannabis for medical conditions.'
Looking at Australia as a whole, in the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey Report 68.8% of people aged over 14 years supported the legalisation of medical marijuana. 74% supported clinical trials.
Similar trends have been noted in other jurisdictions. A 2013 poll by Siena Research Institute found that 82 percent of New Yorkers supported allowing seriously and terminally ill people to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if recommended by a doctor.
A large number of patients also support the legalisation of marijuana use for medical purposes.
A study of 128 Australians who risk legal consequences to take marijuana reported 'great relief' for a variety of conditions. The most common reasons given for use were depression and chronic pain relief. Many of them had tried all available legal alternatives before turning to cannabis to treat their symptoms. They also reported fewer side effects. Their greatest concern with their use of the drug was its illegal status.
90% of participants had informed their doctor of their therapeutic use with 75% receiving a positive response and their families also supported them in 71% of cases.
There was almost universal support amongst medical marijuana users for increased research into the therapeutic benefits of the drug and for alternative methods of administration.