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Powerful op-ed explains why Wisconsin nurses back medical marijuana

December 10, 2005 -- Today the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a hard-hitting op-ed by nurse Gina Dennik-Champion, executive director of the Wisconsin Nurses Association (WNA). The piece explains why the WNA supports a pending state bill that would authorize medical marijuana use (AB 740, "authored by Rep. Gregg Underheim (R-Oshkosh)"). The well-argued piece is an excellent example of patient advocacy that shows nurses to be serious professionals who are fully engaged with key public health issues.

The piece begins: "It is difficult for nurses to remain silent when patients are denied access to an effective medical treatment." Then it assures readers that supporting medical marijuana use is actually a "mainstream" position in the public health community. The American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public Health Association and others have all "acknowledged that marijuana can be a valuable treatment when used under medical supervision." The piece stresses that marijuana can ease many "debilitating symptoms," including nausea and pain, and do so with "remarkable safety," despite the "fear and myth" in which the issue has become clouded. Dennik-Champion explains that only a very small percentage of marijuana users become dependent, that far more addictive drugs are used under health care supervision, and that unlike many other drugs, "marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose."

She also argues that, contrary to some claims, there is no adequate health care substitute for the weed. Marijuana can work where conventional drugs fail or have "unacceptable side effects" because its pain relief mechanisms differ. As examples, she points to pain associated with multiple sclerosis and peripheral neuropathy, "an extremely painful condition that afflicts HIV/AIDS patients and others." Dennik-Champion argues that research shows that an alternative pill with THC, marijuana's primary intoxicant, is inadequate because other components of the plant are important to the drug's therapeutic benefit and may actually reduce unwanted THC side effects. She notes that the pill's slow and uneven absorption actually makes users too stoned to function, which is why The Lancet Neurology has termed it "'the least satisfactory' way to administer cannabinoids"--a point she says was also made in a 1999 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by The White House.

Dennik-Champion notes that, again contrary to some claims, surveys show that teen marijuana use has actually declined in states with medical marijuana laws. And she doesn't stop there, asserting that "lying to children and teens about a drug's value and risks sends the wrong message. Young people should be taught that all drugs and medicines present risks and that medicine should only be taken under a provider's supervision when the patient is sick." She ends by noting that there is no reason to fear a drug with 5,000 years of recorded medical use, and that is "safer than many medicines Americans take every day." More pointedly, she asserts that "[t]here is simply no reason to arrest and jail patients battling cancer, MS, AIDS or other terrible illnesses for using marijuana with the recommendation of their health care providers."

We think this is a very effective op-ed piece. It clearly and powerfully makes the case for medical marijuana. It explains why the drug is so helpful, why alternatives are inadequate, and why supporting medical marijuana use is actually a mainstream position shared by public health professionals. In this regard, note the subtle inclusion of the party affiliation of the bill's author, which also works to assure readers that this is not some kooky left wing plot. The piece argues persuasively that other claims of opponents are groundless at best, and pernicious at worst, since they arguably involve lying to kids in a way that will ultimately put them at risk, and throwing sick people in jail for trying to ease their pain.

The piece also shows Wisconsin nurses to be serious science professionals, intelligent and well-informed about health research and policy, and committed to their patients' wellbeing. On a more technical note, note how the piece repeatedly employs the term "provider" rather than "physician" so as not to exclude the valuable care provided by advanced practice nurses. Of course, many such nurses provide vital ongoing care to the kind of patients who would be most affected by this bill.

We salute Ms. Dennik-Champion for writing this piece and the Journal Sentinel for publishing it.

See the editorial "Nurses back medical marijuana" by Gina Dennik-Champion (right), RN, MSN, MSH, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Nurses Association in the December 10, 2005 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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