Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General | Q&A | Indy Week
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Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General 

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Dr. Joycelyn Elders tells it straight. Her short tenure as U.S. Surgeon General under President Bill Clinton ended in 1994 after she stated at a United Nations conference on AIDS that masturbation was a normal part of sexuality and suggested "perhaps it should be taught" in order to reduce HIV infections. She's called abstinence-only education "child abuse" and spoken out against the war on drugs.

Now almost 75, this sharecroppers' daughter from Arkansas continues to lecture across the country on sex education, universal health care and public health approaches to dealing with illegal drugs.

She will speak in Raleigh Wednesday, June 25, to a committee of the N.C. General Assembly in support of a bill to authorize the study of medical marijuana.

Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford), sponsor of House Joint Resolution 2405, invited Elders to present research to dispel what he calls "misinformation" about the drug. "Once policy makers and public officials get educated on this issue, with accurate information based on science, they usually will do the right thing," Jones said.

The Indy caught up with Elders by phone in advance of her visit.

What do you plan to tell the House Committee on Science and Technology about Rep. Jones' bill?

The bill is to study the medical use of marijuana. We have millions of Americans who live every day with pain that's not relieved by current medications, but is relieved by marijuana. It helps reduce nausea and vomiting and improve appetite for a lot of very ill cancer patients and patients with HIV. And it helps with neuropathic pain in people who have diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

We all want people to live the best life they possibly can, and you can't live a good life if you have a lot of pain. Why not allow people to get relief from this, if their doctor prescribes it and if it can be issued by their pharmacist? Twelve states have already issued permits allowing patients who are seriously ill to use medical marijuana without fear of being arrested.

You've given testimony to several other state legislatures on this topic in the past. What responses do you hear?

People are very concerned that it would be a gateway for teenagers to start using marijuana. Well, there is no scientific evidence for that. In the states that have approved it and made it available, teenage marijuana use has decreased.

They also say there are legal drugs out there patients could use instead of marijuana. But marijuana is far less toxic than many of the drugs, like morphine and OxyContin, currently used for pain.

Marinol is an oral product that contains THC, thought to be the active ingredient in marijuana for relieving pain. Well, if you're nauseated and take another pill, you're going to throw up. It's going to be two hours before it gets to the bloodstream, and you can't control the dose. I understand people are concerned about the smoking. You can use a vaporizer and it gets to the lungs very quickly and immediately goes to the receptors in the brain. With the vaporizer, they don't get too stoned before they get what they need.

Do you have hope that drug policies will change at the national level?

Yes. It needs to change at the national level, and I think it will. State by state, they're coming around, and also as we get more research on the scientific basis on this medicine.

How did you come to take up this issue of medical marijuana?

I was concerned about this even before I became the surgeon general.

When I was state health director in Arkansas in 1986 and 1987, AIDS was a really big thing. At that time, we had almost no drugs for AIDS; we had AZT. Some patients were telling us if they smoked marijuana, they could take their medications longer and have much less nausea and vomiting.

Some scientific studies even back in the '70s with cancer patients receiving chemotherapy showed marijuana was very helpful in reducing the nausea and side effects and stimulating their appetite.

If we could do something to make people feel better, that to me was a good thing. That's what we're about in medicine.

When I was surgeon general, I realized we had more than 2 million people in the prison system and the cost of keeping them there was something like $25,000 to $30,000 [per inmate] a year. The United States was warehousing so many young black men because they were smoking marijuana—not because of shooting somebody or committing a crime. That bothered me. We were spending millions and millions of dollars to crack down on people smoking marijuana and allowing the big drug kings to walk around.

I felt that we should treat marijuana almost like we do alcohol, and not make it a crime where people were hauled off and imprisoned.

What have you been doing since you left the Clinton administration?

I was a professor of public health at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. I retired 10 years ago. I've been on the speakers' circuit. Right now, I'm working on a paper on contraceptive use in adolescents.

So you're still active on the issue of teen pregnancy?

Oh, yes. I feel very strongly about that, and HIV/AIDS prevention, and developing health education for all of our children.

I'm also very concerned about health care for everybody. We don't have a health care system. We have a very expensive sick care system, and we've got to change that.

You must be horrified by the Bush administration's abstinence-only education policy.

Don't even mention that. I get really mad. The people it really hurts the most are the ones we need to help the most.

Who are you supporting for president?

Mr. Obama. I think he'll make an excellent president. Most of all, I'm so pleased he's gotten young people excited. That's what we need, young people out there taking our government back, demanding that we do the things we need to do that make good sense. We can't continue to let our government abort common sense. They're always talking about aborting fetuses; as far as I'm concerned, they've aborted common sense.

Elders will address the Committee on Science and Technology Wednesday, June 25, at 11:30 a.m. in the N.C. General Assembly Auditorium. For more information, visit the General Assembly's Web site at ncleg.net.

  • On medical marijuana

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