Are you for or against medical marijuana?

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It’s unsurprising that using illegal substances to treat medical conditions divides people. The debate about the use of cannabis, or cannabinoids, in medicine continues. Many who’ve subscribed to this unconventional approach say it can reduce symptoms and relieve pain. But despite the widespread support for medical cannabis, economic, cultural and moral agendas make the arguments for and against the legalisation of medical marijuana incredibly complex.

Wicked problem

Professor of Psychology in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, Professor Peter Miller, says that the stigma around drugs makes their integration into medicine incredibly difficult. ‘Even the word “marijuana” is politically loaded’, Prof. Miller says, and explains that during Richard Nixon’s campaign for President in 1968, he purposefully demonised drugs, as part of the now infamous ‘war on drugs’, in order to attack minorities who opposed his campaign and later his presidency. A key part of this was making drugs seem like something foreign. ‘The word “marijuana” was chosen because it’s the Mexican term for cannabis. So it fitted with their racist narrative and the impact of this stigma has lasted for generations,’ he says.

But in 2016, there’s been significant policy change reflecting shifting social attitudes in Australia. In April, Victoria became the first state to provide cannabis to children suffering from epilepsy. New South Wales followed soon after, passing similar laws based on age and illness. Queensland has just announced the most flexible set of laws that don’t restrict use by age. Senior lecturer in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, Dr Matthew Dunn, says the response is largely due to a shifting understanding of how marijuana is used in medicine, particularly when it’s used to help the most vulnerable in our society: children. ‘Medicinal cannabis has been used to treat a number of conditions, such as chronic pain, and vomiting in patients with cancer or HIV. In particular, the use of medicinal cannabis to treat epilepsy in children has received a lot of media attention and I think this is driving the change in public opinion, and certainly political action,’ he says.

Testing positive

Personal stories like that of Cassie Barton contribute to the breaking of stigma around the drug. When brutal seizures threatened the life of her two-and-half-month-old son, and standard medication failed, Cassie and her husband tried medical marijuana with life-changing results. Where their son, Cooper, previously had to be fed through a tube, he was now able to eat, drink and crawl around by himself. Her story prompted government MPs to fight for change in legislation on her behalf and helped pave the way for change in Victoria.

'The use of medicinal cannabis to treat epilepsy in children has received a lot of media attention and I think this is driving the change in public opinion, and certainly political action'

Dr Matthew Dunn,
Deakin University

High maintenance

But advocacy isn’t always easy to come by. Prof. Miller explains that it’s not just politicians who want to be seen as ‘tough on drugs’ working against legalising marijuana. There are the huge economic interests of the so called ‘big industries’, such as cigarettes and alcohol, that invest huge finances in lobbying for less regulation on their addictive products. ‘Tobacco and alcohol are the only legal drugs in town and they don’t want to suddenly have a huge competitor … effective legislation requires testing and learning. But the self-interest of these groups interferes with and prevents thorough development,’ Prof. Miller points out.

Deakin lecturer and pain specialist, Dr Michael Vagg, has a science-based objection to medical marijuana, arguing that the pain relieving abilities of cannabis can be replicated through other drugs. Writing in The Conversation, Vagg argues that cannabis derived products are about as useful as paracetamol for pain. The science is definitely complex he says, but shouldn’t be ignored in deciding an issue with such big outcomes across a range of fields.

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Professor Peter Miller
Professor Peter Miller

Professor of Psychology, Deakin University

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Dr Matthew Dunn
Dr Matthew Dunn

Senior Lecturer, Deakin University

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Dr Michael Vagg
Dr Michael Vagg

Clinical Senior Lecturer, Deakin University

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