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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, March 11, 2000

Don’t inhale
until they prove weed
works miracles

I must have gotten 10 messages when a story moved on the news wires that a chemical found in marijuana might help suppress the symptoms of my multiple sclerosis.

That news was followed shortly by word that both houses of the Hawaii Legislature had given preliminary approval to bills that would legalize medicinal use of marijuana for people with life-threatening and debilitating diseases.

The only response I could come up with was a facetious, "Whoopee! When does the party begin?"

The fact is, I've never had much use for marijuana and I don't plan to start now - at least not on the skimpy current evidence of its health benefits.

From what I've seen, marijuana turns heavy long-term users into listless, slow-witted underachievers with respiratory problems. When I listen to longtime pot smokers talk about the enlightened insights they've achieved, all I see is their obvious loss of brain cells.

And everybody knows a fair number of users who -- once introduced to illegal intoxication with marijuana -- move on to experiment with more dangerous drugs. Despite its mellow reputation, this is not a substance to trifle with.

I've never understood the religious following marijuana has among so many people. If they can't get it legalized for recreational use, they go for medicinal use. Or the religious devotion can be literal. Some marijuana users have built churches around smoking pot, trying to make it legal under the First Amendment.

Then there are the agricultural types who value it as a cash crop. There is also an increasing following for growing hemp, which is marijuana without the high. If people want to wear hemp shirts, that's fine with me. But I just heard on the radio that an environmental group gave its green award to hemp growers. Why is growing hemp more "green" than growing corn?

Legislators should think hard before legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. It has not been rigorously tested like other drugs and its known negative side effects have not been fully explored. It lacks approval of the Food and Drug Administration and few doctors will prescribe it even if it's legal under state law. Doctors can still be prosecuted under federal law.

Even if the Legislature legalizes marijuana for medicinal use, we won't be able to buy it at pharmacies. We'll either buy it off the street or grow our own, leading to wildly varying quality and purity. Which is better for my multiple sclerosis, Maui Wowie or Kona Gold?

YOU have to suspect that the "green" here has more to do with cash than the environment. When I was a Big Island reporter in the 1970s, I did some arithmetic on police estimates of the street value of the local marijuana crop and concluded it had more cash value than the county's sugar crop. And that was when Big Island sugar plantations were still in full production.

Now, with sugar long gone, marijuana growers are a major power in Big Island politics. It looks like they have some clout in the Legislature too.

I'm all for relieving the suffering of people who are dying or in great pain from debilitating diseases. But let's do it right and finish the research first to truly determine if marijuana is medically effective. If it is, we must find ways to administer pure and proper doses.

Otherwise we'll be no better than the tobacco states, spinning out any hype to justify a crop that pays the bills -- but possibly to the great detriment of those who use it.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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