Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine

Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine

Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine

Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine


Marijuana as medicine has been a politically charged topic in this country for more than three decades. Despite overwhelming public support and growing scientific evidence of its therapeutic effects (relief of the nausea caused by chemotherapy for cancer and AIDS, control over seizures or spasticity caused by epilepsy or MS, and relief from chronic and acute pain, to name a few), the drug remains illegal under federal law.

In Dying to Get High, noted sociologist Wendy Chapkis and Richard J. Webb investigate one community of seriously-ill patients fighting the federal government for the right to use physician-recommended marijuana. Based in Santa Cruz, California, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) is a unique patient-caregiver cooperative providing marijuana free of charge to mostly terminally ill members. For a brief period in 2004, it even operated the only legal non-governmental medical marijuana garden in the country, protected by the federal courts against the DEA.

Using as their stage this fascinating profile of one remarkable organization, Chapkis and Webb tackle the broader, complex history of medical marijuana in America. Through compelling interviews with patients, public officials, law enforcement officers and physicians, Chapkis and Webb ask what distinguishes a legitimate patient from an illegitimate pothead, good drugs from bad, medicinal effects from just getting high. Dying to Get High combines abstract argument and the messier terrain of how people actually live, suffer and die, and offers a moving account of what is at stake in ongoing debates over the legalization of medical marijuana.


People always want to know whether I’ve actually done the things I write about. It was a popular question when I was writing about prostitution and is undiminished now that I’m doing research on drugs. I’ve considered taking the path laid out by Dr. Charles Grob, a physician and longtime researcher on the medical applications of psychoactive drugs, and defer an answer; Grob observes, “I’m damned if I have [tried drugs] and I’m damned if I haven’t. If I have, then my perspective would be discounted due to my own personal bias, and if I haven’t, it would be discounted because I would not truly understand the full range of experience the drug can induce.”

But the idea that direct experience—or the lack of it—is the most salient divide between good research and bad seems misguided to me. The fact that I wasn’t a prostitute when I decided to write about prostitution didn’t really undermine my ability to think critically about the practice and its meanings. Neither can it be said that my familiarity with marijuana, as a recreational and as a medicinal drug, certifies my understanding of cannabis prohibition and consumption. In both my research on prostitution and my research on the medical uses of marijuana, direct experience isn’t what separates my work from that of other social scientists. Instead, if there is a distinguishing quality, I would say that it lies in a clear sense that my work is explicitly value laden rather than value neutral.

I didn’t approach this study as a dispassionate observer. I came to the subject of the medical use of marijuana already suspicious of the War on Drugs. I entered the research field also believing that doctors should have the right to recommend nonaddictive and nontoxic herbs to their patients in an effort to relieve suffering; I also believe that patients should have the right to obtain and use those substances. These values underlie my work and color my account.

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