Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.30.2009

The Plight of the Chronically Ill
How can we improve quality of life?
By Jay R. Cavanaugh, Ph.D.

An estimated 20 million Americans suffer from chronic illness. These terrible body and soul-destroying afflictions range from HIV to cancer to chronic pain to disabling mental conditions. At the very time that we acknowledge the suffering of millions along with their families, the nation’s health care system continues to erode and fails utterly to meet the needs of our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and friends.

 The plight of the chronically ill presents a disturbing picture to most Americans. We prefer to place such sad cases into institutional anonymity. Many of the sick are warehoused in “board and care” facilities, jails, prisons, and in the lonely forgotten rooms reserved for the wounded.

 Our profit-driven medical system is ill equipped to care for the chronically ill. Many of the sick have lost their health insurance or scrape by with Medicare. Unknown to most Americans, Medicare provides little to the chronically ill. Desperately needed medications are denied. Adequate funding for extended care facilities is lacking.

 There is a stigma about chronic illness that pervades the consciousness of America. These sick folks have somehow brought their plight upon themselves, acted irresponsibly, are defective, whiners, and so on. This is all so slick and comfortable until the reality of terrible illness strikes someone we know and love. Then we all find that the resources to meet our responsibilities to care for the sick are nowhere in sight. We cannot afford to adequately treat such individuals and yet we cannot continue to ignore the utter inhumanity of inaction.

Many of the chronically ill have successfully sought relief with the use of medical cannabis, an age-old remedy that now shows real scientific efficacy. Hundreds of thousands of the sick have replaced disabling narcotic and other psychotropic medications with nontoxic and benign cannabis. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Folks with spinal injuries able to give up their walkers, AIDS patients able to gain weight and keep their medications down, cancer patients finding relief from the terrible nausea of chemotherapy, chronic pain patients once again functional with their consciousness restored from narcotic lethargy, and folks once disabled from crippling psychiatric disorders and addictions, returned to sanity and society with the assistance of a nontoxic herb with remarkable healing powers.

 Yet, the same system, which stigmatizes the sick, which fails to meet even minimal medical needs, is hell-bent on denying the chronically ill relief from their conditions with medical cannabis. Why? Our fear of addiction and, even greater, our fear that cannabis will somehow reduce our wonderful productivity, has trapped us into the blind alley of a mistaken belief system.  It is far past time to re-examine our “reefer madness” philosophy. Cold, hard, scientific and objective examination shows that America has been wrong about its treatment of the chronically ill and wrong about the benefits of medical cannabis.

 Medical cannabis is no “cure all.” Cannabis is no substitute for comprehensive medical care. We cannot pawn off our obligation to the sick and aging simply by allowing the medical use of “marijuana.” Yet, we can significantly improve the quality of life of the chronically ill by making medical cannabis easily available while examining society’s role and obligations to our brothers and sisters who suffer.


J.R. Cavanaugh, Ph.D.,  is national director of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis.