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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Filler: Medical heroin? We already have it

A file photo of 80 mg pills of

A file photo of 80 mg pills of OxyContin. Credit: Newsday, 2010 / Thomas A. Ferrara

It's funny, as the medical marijuana debate rages, how you never hear any arguing about medical heroin. I don't mean "funny ha-ha" like watching Steve Martin's "The Jerk" when you're stoned. I mean . . . peculiar.

Because that's essentially what OxyContin, codeine, Vicodin, morphine and all the other serious painkillers are: opioids, like heroin, that can relieve pain but also get you high. They're formulated and prescribed at differing strengths for different needs, but so are beer, wine and Bacardi 151, and it doesn't change the fact that they're all the same thing. It just means they make parties loosen up at different speeds.

Prescribed opioids are similar enough in their effects to heroin that many people addicted to the street version will seek the drugstore flavors when heroin is scarce, and steal them from medicine cabinets whenever possible.

This year we saw a push to decriminalize possession of smallish amounts of marijuana in New York by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, along with the passage of a medical marijuana bill in the State Assembly for the third time in 15 years. Neither move evolved into a law. At the moment, 17 states have legalized marijuana use for medical purposes. Another 14 have decriminalized possession of small amounts for grooviness purposes: giggling, listening to The Doors, eating Cool Ranch Doritos, et cetera.

But Washington recognizes none of this, and marijuana, whether you use it to relieve nausea or induce nostalgia, is federally illegal for all.

So why are we so comfortable with our medical morphine (well, it is comforting) and Percocets, and "the good cough medicine" that fights phlegm while enabling fun? Because it's always been that way and we're used to it. And because it's associated with professionals in white coats, rather than slackers in torn denim who use the word "dude" more than the Smurfs said "Smurf."

Morphine was freely available in the United States before it was declared a controlled substance in 1914. Hydrocodone was approved by the FDA in 1943. All our lives, doctors and pharmacists have dispensed opioids as medicine.

But drug policy is too important to be decided based on feelings like a comforting familiarity with Vicodin and a baseless discomfort with marijuana.

The latest studies say 43 percent of American adults, or more than 100 million, have tried marijuana. As the bonging baby boomers age and their largely pot-free parents die, that percentage will grow.

And regardless of the law, marijuana is so readily available for most people that they have an easier time buying a bag of weed than getting a Wal-Mart clerk to help them find the Tylenol.

So while illicit marijuana abounds, medical marijuana is federally banned and illegal in a lot of states. Under these circumstances, guess who can't get it? The kind of law-abiding, mostly elderly citizens who need it most: cancer sufferers fighting nausea; those who have glaucoma and want to relieve the pressure and pain in their eyes; multiple sclerosis patients looking for one more weapon against the disease.

They can get medical heroin, OxyContin or Vicodin or morphine, but that won't help if they need weed. Meanwhile, their kids and grandkids buy and smoke as much pot as they want, because they don't respect a farcical law that brands more than 40 percent of Americans outlaws. Pondering how badly this country has screwed up its drug policy is enough to make you reach into the medicine cabinet for the medical heroin, or rather, cough syrup.

And why not? It's government-legal, pharmacy-dispensed and just what the doctor ordered.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.