Does severe remorse require a specialist?

In her recent New Yorker article, “The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer,” author Alice Gregory claims there are no self-help books for anyone who has accidentally killed another person.  Nor published research, therapeutic protocols, publicly listed support groups, nor therapists who specialize in their treatment.  She profiles several such tormented souls who bear their burdens largely alone.

Yet dealing with guilt, shame, and regret is a mainstay of both self-help and professional therapy.  A simple online search reveals page after page of self-help websites, therapist and clinic practices, newspaper and magazine articles, all about forgiving oneself, learning to accept one’s failures, and letting go.  In that sense the piece misleads about the lack of help available.  Indeed, although I don’t “specialize” in the treatment of those who accidentally kill another person — as best I recall, I’ve never worked with this specifically — I join many of my colleagues in welcoming any such person into my practice.

Gregory implies this particular remorse is unique: qualitatively different and far worse than regrets about bad marriages, abusive parenting, ruined businesses, accidental self-harm, and so on.  And so it is, in the same way that murder is usually considered the worst crime.  Taking a life, even unintentionally, is irrevocable and can’t be remedied.  Each life is one of a kind.

Does this render all the self-help moot?  the army of therapists clueless?  Does it take an elusive specialist to help in such severe cases?

Experience can’t hurt, of course.  Just as an experienced addiction therapist readily spots enabling and codependency; just as a therapist well versed in psychodynamics quickly senses subtle inner conflict; just as an expert cognitive therapist knows how to tailor a welcome intervention; so too a therapist who has worked with many guilt-ridden, self-punishing CADI (“Causing Accidental Death or Injury”) clients would know which interventions are usually helpful.

Lacking such an expert, should a sufferer reach out for the far more accessible, if less tailored, help out there?  By all means.  Although CADI is an extreme case, no one’s life story or emotional burden is exactly like another’s.  No one’s guilty remorse — or depression, anxiety, or self-sabotage — is quite the same as anyone else’s.  No therapist, no matter how experienced or specialized, can know beforehand exactly where a patient or client is coming from.  To one CADI client, the phrase “accidental killer” (in the title of the New Yorker piece) may feel just right, to another painfully harsh.  Even the value-neutral term “CADI” covers very different situations, e.g., a subway operator unable to stop the train before hitting a suicidal person on the tracks, versus a driver who falls asleep at the wheel and veers into unsuspecting traffic.

A widely-read New Yorker article highlighting this forgotten, suffering group is surely a gift to these folks and their loved ones.  Yet it would be sad if it left the false impression that only hard-to-find, specialized help is worth seeking.  In this situation especially, it’s important to remember our human connection with others, not just our differences.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Lumping and splitting

As a young psychotherapy researcher I learned that some of my colleagues were “lumpers” and others were “splitters.” The former look at research data and see commonalities. Instead of different kinds of psychotherapy, say, they see a spectrum of styles with a shared core. Lumpers search for universal truths, missing links, ways of combining categories. They apply this to people too.  Lumpers believe we are more alike than we are different, that our personalities differ in degree, not in fundamental type. We all bleed the same color.

Splitters, on the other hand, make distinctions. Different psychotherapies are as different as salt and pepper. The more categories we recognize, the better we understand the world, and each other. Science advances as we see distinctions we previously overlooked. The classification of human disease ever expands. Biologists name new sub-species. And as for people, our personalities fall into discrete types: narcissistic, sociopathic, neurotic — and normal.  Splitters call a spade a spade.

While the splitter in me just divided people into two kinds — lumper and splitter — the lumper in me now adds that we are all mixtures of both. Developmental psychology bears this out. At birth, we can’t even tell our mothers from ourselves — the ultimate lumping. But soon a sense of self appears, culminating in the “terrible twos” when toddlers delight in black-and-white thinking and contrary opinions — crude but heartfelt splitting.  With maturity comes a balanced appreciation of both commonality and difference. (To therapists, “splitting” is a technical term for polarized, binary thinking that pathologically persists into adulthood.)  The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described a similar cognitive adaptation as “assimilation” and “accommodation.”  In learning about the world, the child assimilates (lumps) various observations into a single schema — all furry pets are “dogs” — until that schema fits so poorly that the child must accommodate (split) it into “dogs” and “cats.”  Lumping and splitting are in dynamic tension as we develop.

Splitting rules American and international politics today.  Difference, not commonality, echoes across the political spectrum. The right is an old hand at this. Conservatives draw stark lines around good and evil, law-abiding and criminal, citizen and immigrant. A “good guy with a gun” is a different species than a similarly armed “bad guy,” never mind that even good guys may suffer a momentary lapse of judgment, or simply misinterpret a fast-unfolding situation.  Those who disagree with conservatism are dismissed as socialists or “snowflakes.” Politics today banks on race, religion, and nationalism. The brotherhood of man is for losers. The epitome of splitting, the alt-right, has been welcomed into the mainstream by the President himself.

However, the contemporary left also splits like crazy. Identity politics erects walls defining who is in and who is out. Those who disagree with progressivism are dismissed as racists or fascists. “Cultural appropriation” condemns the mixing of cultures and the blurring of boundaries, while “intersectionality” slices us into finer and finer categories. In 2014 Facebook introduced at least 58 gender labels for self-identification. We belong to smaller and smaller groups, perhaps ultimately to groups of one. By striving to make every unique voice heard, the left has fractured itself into politically powerless factions, the very opposite of collectivism.

Splitting is in our genes. It’s a survival mechanism we share with other animals. When startled, safety demands that we make a snap judgment of friend or foe. After all, ignoring danger can be fatal. Yet constantly expecting danger stifles the rewards of lumping, e.g., empathy, connection, seeing the big picture.  An individual who constantly splits to assure personal safety is mentally unwell: anxious, untrusting, exhausted.  Politically we now suffer the same illness.  From left to right we behave as though under attack, hunkered down, reduced to crude binary survival thinking and nothing better.

Children, psychotherapy researchers, and healthy societies must balance lumping and splitting. We split to assure our safety, autonomy, and comprehension. But we need to lump too. The toddler must learn to say yes occasionally. The researcher must concede that different schools of therapy look similar in practice. And despite our political differences, we must allow ourselves, and others, to feel safe enough to give up some of our grim and isolating splitting.

The high-risk psychiatric patient

A woman recently requested a medication evaluation at the suggestion of her psychotherapist.  The caller told me her diagnosis was borderline personality disorder. She hoped medication might ease her anxiety.  She also admitted that two other psychiatrists refused to see her because she was too “high risk.”  I asked if she was suicidal.  Yes, thoughts crossed her mind. However, she never acted on them, and was not suicidal currently.  I was curious whether my colleagues recoiled at the caller’s diagnosis, her suicide risk, her wish for anxiety-relieving medication, or something else.

By definition, “high risk” medical and surgical patients face an increased chance of poor outcome.  According to a British study, high-risk surgical patients are a 12% minority who suffer 80% of all perioperative deaths.  High-risk pregnancies threaten the health or life of the mother or fetus; they constitute six to eight percent of all pregnancies.  Various charts and algorithms identify the high-risk cardiac patient.

Historically, physicians and surgeons accepted high-risk cases.  As one would expect, these patients had poorer outcomes and higher mortality.  Doctors did the best they could, humbled by their limitations and occasional failures, spurred to treat the next such patient more successfully.  However, recent social changes conspire to blunt this acceptance.  Fear of lawsuits, stemming both from an active medical malpractice bar and patients’ high expectations, means that doctors, too, are at high risk.  Increased reliance on outcome data and online reviews by patients may likewise lead some clinicians to cherry-pick cases that won’t mar their results.  Patients at high medical or surgical risk now have a harder time finding a doctor who will see them.

No single hazard defines the high-risk psychiatric patient.   There is a robust literature on young people at high (and “ultra-high“) risk for developing psychosis.   There are well established risk factors for addiction.  Patients have also been deemed at high risk psychiatrically when they leave institutional care without permission; when they are young unemployed women following discharge from medical ICUs; and when they are youths with “serious emotional disturbance” who receive public services.  Having a psychiatric problem at all may be one factor among many that signals high risk in non-psychiatric medical settings.

However, “high risk” in psychiatry most often refers to suicide risk.  A large literature relates suicide to demographics, physical health, psychiatric diagnosis, behaviors such as substance use, and so on.  Unfortunately, a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder is associated with an 8-10% lifetime suicide rate.  This is significantly higher than the general population, and on par with schizophrenia and major mood disorders.  Did two psychiatrists refuse to see my caller due to her suicide risk?  If so, do they also refuse those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression?

To the best of my knowledge, psychiatrists do not shun high-risk cases in order to avoid lawsuits or to improve their outcome statistics or online ratings.  Psychiatrists are rarely sued, and few of us even have such statistics or ratings.  However, a 1986 study by Hellman et al found (unsurprisingly) that patients’ suicidal threats were stressful for their psychotherapists.  Perhaps the real question is: What kinds of stress should be expected in routine psychiatric practice, and what kinds are legitimately avoided?

We must acknowledge that every decision about joining insurance panels, setting fees, or limiting one’s practice in any way is a form of cherry-picking, broadly construed.  The stresses of running a business and providing for one’s family are not unique to psychiatry.  Everyone wrestles with balancing self-interest and other-interest.  Yet these trade-offs are particularly glaring in heath care, including mental health care.

The law allows doctors to refuse service to anyone, as long as that refusal isn’t based on membership in a legally protected class, e.g., race or religion.  This doesn’t resolve questions of ethics and professionalism though.   I often turn down medication-only cases (although not the above caller) owing to my interest in psychotherapy.  I’ve also written about avoiding private insurance contracts, and my mixed feelings about accepting Medicare.  Of course, patient misbehavior may also lead a psychiatrist to turn down or refer out a case: inability to keep or pay for appointments, calling incessantly, making too many demands, etc.

I think avoiding suicidal patients is different.  To me, a psychiatrist who avoids suicidal patients is like a surgeon who can’t stand the sight of blood, or an obstetrician who doesn’t like to think about where babies come from.  Suicidal feelings are exactly why some patients seek our help.  Yes, they are at high risk for a bad outcome.  And I can vouch for the stress: in addition to being the target of numerous suicide threats and gestures, I have had one confirmed suicide in my practice, another that was equivocal (it may have been an accident), and likely others I don’t know about.  It’s no fun.  But in the end, the “high risk” belongs to the patient, not me.  I do the best I can.

Come to think of it, a closer analogy is my declining to conduct ADHD evaluations in order to avoid being a gatekeeper for stimulant-seekers.  I suppose here too the risk is theirs, despite my discomfort with gatekeeping and lie detection.  This confusion — whose risk is it? — is tricky.  Death, disability, hospitalization, and addiction are risks to the patient.  Lawsuits, adverse outcome data, regret at taking the case, and the stress of uncertainty and self-criticism are risks to us.  Some of the latter risks have always been par for the course, some are newer.  Some are self-imposed.  When we speak of the high-risk patient, let’s be honest about whose risk it is.

Graphic courtesy of

Psychodynamically informed clinical work

In a world of diverse mental health treatments and treatment settings, psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy have lost their former prominence.  Only a small fraction of patients have the time, money, and interest to engage in long-term, open-ended mental exploration — even if doing so would get to the root of their problems and lead to lasting improvement.  More commonly, emotional distress is dealt with in emergency departments, in crisis clinics, on the medical and surgical floors of hospitals, in short-stay psychiatric inpatient units, and in non-clinical settings such as schools and prisons.  These settings permit only limited assessment and clinical intervention.  Partly as a result, nearly all have embraced medication and cognitive behavioral techniques.  These treatments are seen as “evidence based” because they empirically decrease, as designed, the discrete signs and symptoms that make up psychiatric diagnostic criteria.  They are, in other words, very good for treating most psychiatric diagnoses.

Treating the person so diagnosed is another matter, though.  No two depressions, psychoses, or traumatic reactions are the same.  An individualized perspective recognizes the person behind the symptoms — and even the person behind the persona.  Knowing patients in depth may uncover why one gratefully accepts care while another resists; why one is consolable while another is not; why one prefers inpatient care while another opts for yoga and herbs.  Two patients may meet criteria for “major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate,” yet look and act very differently from one another.  Attention to these differences is the strength of psychodynamic treatment, and exactly what is lost as we turn away from it.

Fortunately, psychodynamic understanding is not limited to dynamic psychotherapy per se.  Psychodynamics are everywhere if we look for them.  The way people handle stress, their typical defenses or coping strategies, distinguish one personality from another.   By acting on plausible hypotheses about another person’s conscious and unconscious motivations, we align our efforts to his or her emotional reality, feel more empathy, and help that person meet his or her true needs.

Psychodynamically informed clinical thinking starts with staying awake and paying attention.   It takes no formal training to appreciate that, faced with the same threat, one person laughs it off, another counter-punches, while still another retreats and concedes.  Observing and acting on these personality differences can improve one’s skills as a trial lawyer, a salesperson, or an elementary school teacher.   If attorneys, salespeople, and teachers can enhance their work in this way, surely mental health professionals, and clinicians in general, can as well.  How does the patient relate to the clinician and to treatment recommendations?  How much motivation is there to get well?  How fearful is the patient?  Is it fulfilling to work with this person, or is he or she antagonistic, self-sabotaging, or working at cross-purposes?

The next step is curiosity: why is the patient this way?   From childhood we hear and apply informal explanations for what motivates others.  Psychodynamic theory refines this natural inclination.  It offers principles based in the dynamic unconscious to explain and predict human behavior, and to recognize emotions the patient may not have articulated or even been conscious of.  A prescription can feel generous and caring to one patient, and a brush-off to another; knowing something about the personalities of these patients can guide effective treatment.  The agitated patient in the emergency room may be an assault risk, or just frightened.  Knowing the difference can mean calling Security versus having a calming conversation.  In any setting the clinician can still prescribe the same medications, order the same lab tests, or conduct (or refer the patient for) the same CBT, just with a deeper sense of what the patient seeks, and what is most apt to help.

The final, optional step is to share psychodynamic wonder with patients, i.e., to encourage their own curiosity about themselves.  This is where clinicians differ from attorneys and salespeople: besides providing a service, we also strive to help patients feel and stay well.  Dynamic insight may help a patient better understand herself or himself (“know thyself”), tie together apparently disparate symptoms, and lay out a path to emotional healing.  It doesn’t take a mental health professional with psychodynamic expertise to imbue this curiosity and self-reflection — although it may help.  Minimally, it takes a psychodynamically informed clinician who is willing and able, even when providing other types of assessment and treatment, to see the patient as an individual with unique emotional reactions, a characteristic way of dealing with stress, and a subtle depth of personality that is meaningful and important.  While this perspective would enhance any clinical practice, its absence in any area of clinical psychiatry or psychology is a particularly glaring omission.


Diagnosing Donald Trump

On January 31, 2017, the Psychology Today editorial staff published a well-balanced summary of the debate over whether to declare President Trump mentally ill. While the debate focuses on mental health professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists who are credentialed to make such diagnoses, the question clearly goes further.  Public commentary following this and other articles expresses outrage — not only at the behaviors and policies of Trump himself, but also at any suggestion that diagnosis is off-limits as a form of political criticism.  We want to be able to call public figures crazy when we don’t like them.  We defend our right to do so.

Criticizing a person’s character, not the content of their arguments, was recognized by ancient Greek philosophers as a logical fallacy: argumentum ad hominem.  Yet the character of powerful politicians seems vitally important.  Does our president have integrity?  Is he trustworthy?  Will he stand by what he says?  There is no avoiding questions of character when global war could result from a leader’s imprudence, irritability, or petty revenge.

Our armamentarium of terms of disapproval is large.  Some are purely moral, terms like “bad” or “evil.”  Some highlight impaired intellect: “shortsighted,” “foolish,” “idiot.”  Some take aim at undue self-interest and self-aggrandizement: “selfish,” “cold-hearted,” “narcisssist.”  There is no clear distinction between putdowns that derive from psychological concepts and those that derive from religious morality and other roots.  It is as legitimate to criticize Trump as narcissistic as it is to say he’s too hot-headed (or inexperienced) to be President.  And it is equally legitimate to argue against these criticisms, if one happens to support him.

Using psychiatric diagnoses — not just psychologically derived adjectives — adds rhetorical weight to one’s critique, particularly, but not only, if the speaker is a mental health professional.  A diagnosis, e.g., Narcissistic Personality Disorder, connotes a carefully considered conclusion based on scientific research — far more than a mere personal opinion.  There is an implied consensus: unbiased experts would concur if they looked carefully at the data.

Critique-by-diagnosis also unfortunately capitalizes on prejudice against the mentally ill, tarring the target with a label that diminishes him and sets him apart from the rest of us.  Diagnosis would not serve as political disapproval if it primarily called forth pity and generosity.  It is offered as disqualification, hardly the thing mental health advocates would want associated with, say, a personality disorder.

The “Goldwater Rule” instructing psychiatrists not to diagnose public figures was promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association to protect its brand.  Psychiatric diagnosis was, and is, already fraught.  Some who are opposed to psychiatry reject diagnosis on principle, while many others fear its negative impacts.  The authority to pass judgment on the mental functioning of others is not to be taken lightly.  By analogy, society would not grant police officers the right to make arrests if they did so for political expediency or to express a strongly held personal opinion.

Little is gained by arguing that President Trump meets criteria for a DSM-5 psychiatric disorder.  Other terms of disapproval can be just as powerful, without the liability of adding to psychiatric stigma, dulling the tools of our trade, and popularizing the use of psychiatric terms to double for everyday personality descriptions.

It also makes no practical difference. Diagnosis is mainly for treatment, clearly not the point here, and Mr. Trump’s character is what it is.  (And lest we forget, many people like it.)  The public will continue to use terms like “liar” and “idiot” and even “narcissist” for disliked politicians.  As private citizens we mental health professionals may do so as well — with the added advantage that we’re more apt to use psychological terms accurately, and can sometimes extrapolate character style to predict future behavior.  But all this is different than diagnosis proper.  Diagnosis is a sharp instrument for helping patients, but only a blunt weapon in political discourse.

Reposted from

Christmas 2016, a fable

starry reindeerNo one recalled when Rudy joined the teamsters, it may have been several seasons back.  Awkward and quiet, he mostly kept to himself.  The other guys avoided Rudy.  No one ever asked him to join their casual poker games, no one ever invited him to hang out after work.  He wasn’t harassed exactly, but their barely hidden disdain was depressing background noise.  Every day or two he caught a hint of derisive laughter; he imagined himself the butt of a joke he hadn’t heard.  It was clear the gang didn’t like him, and Rudy was pretty sure he knew why.  It was purely an appearance thing.

You wouldn’t think it would matter much to a bunch of young bucks — and the occasional doe, like Vixen — hauling cargo.  But Rudy’s nose glowed flamboyantly red.  It drew attention wherever he went.  His coworkers, if they thought about it at all, assumed it was from drinking too much, although they also feared a communicable disease, an infection maybe.  In any case, they didn’t ask, and in his shame, Rudy didn’t tell.

The truth was that Rudy was transitioning.  Although he was raised in a traditional reindeer family, childhood tales of flight had fascinated him.  In school he took a special interest in winged creatures: birds, bats, and insects of all types.  He imagined soaring above the tundra, smoke wafting from tiny village chimneys below.  He wanted to be an entomologist, an expert in insects, winged ones specifically.  But his grades weren’t good enough for college.  So he contented himself with his butterfly net, and with catching fireflies in a glass jar on warm summer evenings.

He felt a special kinship with fireflies, the way they hovered in place, their flashing glow signaling to others through thin air.  Always shy, Rudy wished he too had a way to signal to others, to reach across the void, to connect.  The longer he gazed into his jar, the more yearning he felt: to fly, to hover with his mates, to glow with an organic light from within.

After graduating, Rudy joined the air-cargo team up north.  It was seasonal work but the pay wasn’t bad.  His boss was always in a jolly mood, and he didn’t feel quite so alone with his team.  Best of all, the job fulfilled his dreams of flight.  Still, he kept thinking about the fireflies: their peaceful, carefree lives, the way their souls literally lit up the space around them.  He wanted to be one.

It isn’t easy for a reindeer, even one running air cargo, to transition to firefly.  Wings were out of the question; he was no Pegasus.  Fortunately, with dedicated internet searching he found tips and suggestions.  There was even a small online community of quadrupeds with an interest in — some called it a fetish for — chemiluminescence.  Posting anonymously, Rudy was welcomed in.  For the first time, his preoccupation didn’t feel so weird.  He learned that a glowing nose could be achieved with practice (and without scary, expensive surgery).  And practice he did, day and night, until he glowed just like the fireflies of his childhood.  Except in red.

Only last winter did Rudy muster the courage to come out at work.  He wasn’t expecting a warm reception; after all, he wasn’t that popular to start with.  Yet the blunt ostracism of the others shocked him.  He was still the same Rudolph inside, glow or no glow.  He loved the air runs, but started to think about different work — leading nighttime tours of the tundra, maybe, or helping with the caribou migration.

Then one foggy evening before a big run, the boss came over.  While he rarely talked to Rudy directly, he had watched the painful shunning all along.  He asked Rudy to lead the run.  This was partly practical — Rudy’s glowing nose would cut through the foggy gloom — but also to let the others know the management didn’t approve of workplace discrimination and prejudice.  After all, the boss was one of the first in the region to employ elves, another historically disadvantaged group.

Rudy took great pride in leading the run, which by all accounts was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.  And the wisdom of the boss, it turned out, shined even brighter than Rudy’s nose.  For this single event turned the glowing nose from a shameful liability to an asset.  The other guys now accepted Rudy and even celebrated the diversity he brought to the team.  Instead of making jokes at Rudy’s expense, they joked instead that they’d all go down in history as the only air-cargo team led by a four-hooved firefly.  They laughed with him, not at him, and that made all the difference in the world.  Several confessed that they too had dreamed of flight when young.  A few were even curious to learn chemiluminescence themselves, although none ever went through with it.  Rudy led a number of other runs over the years, especially when fog or a moonless night called for extra light, and was happy ever after to be accepted by his coworkers.

The moral of this story: Inclusion and acceptance are aided by powerful role models.  When leaders, such as workplace managers, employers, and politicians, model humanitarian ideals, we are encouraged to rise to their level.  Conversely, when those in authority promote bigotry and hate, when they fan the flames of xenophobia and prejudice, it gives permission for those who look up to them to show their worst (s)elves.

Image courtesy of MR. LIGHTMAN at

Prescription drug abuse and the physician gatekeeper

guard-gateOpioid painkillers such as Vicodin (hydrocodone) and OxyContin (oxycodone) are crucial medical tools that are addictive and widely abused.  Tranquilizers and sleeping pills of the benzodiazepine class, e.g., Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam), are safe and effective in limited, short-term use, but are often taken too freely, leading to drug tolerance and withdrawal risks.  Stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine) ease the burden of ADHD, but are also widely used as college study aids as well as recreationally.  All of these medications are available only by prescription.  This means prescribers serve as gatekeepers, permitting access for medical needs and denying it otherwise.

This gatekeeping can be difficult.  Doctors are imperfect lie detectors and can be fooled with a plausible story.  Pain, anxiety, insomnia, and inattention are mostly invisible.  The internet offers quick lessons in how to fake a medical history.  Beyond the initial assessment, every physician has patients who repeatedly “lose” bottles of painkillers or tranquilizers and request more.  Secretly seeing multiple doctors to obtain the same drug remains fairly easy.  While a few doctors run illegal “pill mills” and flout the gatekeeper role, many more are simply too overworked to be vigilant with every patient.

None of us became physicians to fight the war on drugs.  On the contrary, most of us are uncomfortable doubting our patients’ honesty.  It’s stressful to worry about being too suspicious or too gullible, and it’s a waste of valuable time.

The possibility of tranquilizer abuse arose with a new patient of mine recently.  My concern led to multiple phone calls to pharmacies and to consulting California’s CURES database online.  I was convinced enough that something was amiss that I confronted my patient, who responded by calling me names, making vague threats, and leaving in a huff without paying for the appointment (and, of course, never coming back).  Although the reaction seemed confirmatory, in truth I’m still not certain my suspicions were correct.  Why did I put my patient and myself through such grief?  Because I wanted to “do no harm.”  Accepting the gatekeeper role requires scrutinizing and sometimes confronting the patient at the gate.

Let’s consider other drugs that are used both medically and recreationally — but unlike those mentioned above, do not involve a physician gatekeeper.

The best candidate may be cannabis.  Currently legal in 25 states, medical marijuana requires a doctor’s authorization but not a prescription that specifies dosage, frequency, duration of treatment, or route of administration.  By definition, a Schedule I drug like marijuana is not “FDA approved” for any medical use.  Yet cannabis is very much like the Schedule II drug Adderall: it has a few solid medical uses, a much larger set of dubious or controversial ones, and a vast sea of mostly illegal recreational use.  A lot of medical marijuana is used for relaxation or sleep, blurring the medical-recreational distinction in much the way Adderall does when used for studying.  Purely recreational use is legal in four states as of this writing.  Legalization is on the ballot this November in five additional states, including California where I practice.

I have never authorized medical marijuana, although several of my patients were approved by other physicians and use it regularly.  Once a patient tells me he or she uses marijuana, whether doctor-approved or (for now) illegally, I can act in my preferred role as advisor.  We can discuss risks and benefits, sativa versus indica, THC and CBD, all without me having to second-guess my patient’s story, make a paternalistic decision about whether to authorize access, or even cast judgment on the decision to use it.

In states where recreational cannabis is newly legal, it joins the three drugs already native to our cultural landscape.  Adults consume alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine with nary a prescription, gatekeeper, or hoop to jump through.  And although we rarely think about it, all three have medicinal effects.  Alcohol can reduce stress, aid sleep, and may promote health in a number of other ways.  Caffeine treats fatigue, migraine headaches, and possibly obesity.  Nicotine eases Parkinson’s disease and perhaps schizophrenia, and helps with weight loss.  While smoking rates are declining in the U.S., most Americans continue to use alcohol and caffeine often and for a complex mixture of reasons: taste, psychoactive effects, social custom, and sometimes for plainly medicinal purposes.  Widespread use also leads to addiction in a significant subset of the population: caffeine becomes necessary and not just optional, and we go to extraordinary efforts to manage alcoholism.  As tragic as this is, nearly everyone agrees that Prohibition was the greater evil.

I like that I’m an advisor, not a gatekeeper, for marijuana and the (other) legal vices.  I also reject the gatekeeper role for stimulants by telling callers I don’t treat ADHD.  This is trickier: my refusal to treat a legitimate psychiatric disorder is arguably too finicky.  It can be hard for an earnest sufferer to obtain a thorough evaluation and treatment, even if paradoxically it is all too easy for a drug abuser to tell a sob story and score a prescription.  Nonetheless, with stimulants as with medical marijuana, I’m uncomfortable making Solomonic distinctions where medical and non-medical uses lie so closely on a continuum.

In any event, I draw the line there.  I continue to prescribe tranquilizers and sleeping pills for my patients who seem to need them.  I may unwittingly abet substance abuse in some cases, but the alternative is to not prescribe any abusable medication, a stance that feels far too finicky.  After all, medication gatekeeping is the norm for many physicians.  Oncologists, surgeons, and ER doctors can’t tell patients they don’t treat pain.  Surgeon general Vivek Murthy sent a letter to every U.S. physician in August urging us to help fight the “opioid epidemic” by limiting dosages and durations of opioid prescriptions, and by substituting non-narcotic alternatives — in essence, by being better gatekeepers.

The only way to avoid doctor-as-gatekeeper entirely is to make all drugs available without a prescription.  The prospect of narcotics and amphetamines on the open market strikes most of us as extremely foolish, even though Prohibition and the failed war on drugs should give us pause. The other strategy is to embrace gatekeeping even more seriously, as Dr. Murthy advises.  Careful comprehensive evaluation, “start low and go slow” prescribing, close monitoring using a system like CURES, and strictly limiting refills should drive down prescription drug abuse.  Unfortunately, this takes more clinical time, one thing most physicians can’t spare, and a trading away of doctor-patient collaboration for something more wary and legalistic.  As usual, physicians are asked to erode the traditional doctor-patient relationship, and do more work, to keep the system afloat.  Meanwhile, patients suffer further small indignities and a colder encounter.

Alternatively, we could wait it out.  The line between medical treatment and personal enhancement or optimization gets fuzzier all the time.  Society may soon fail to distinguish treating an anxiety disorder and taking something to relax in the evening, or treating ADHD and simply maximizing one’s mental sharpness.  The medical-recreational divide already looks more like a continuum for marijuana and stimulants, and is essentially gone with respect to alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.  If this trend continues, physicians may no longer be called upon to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate drug use.  Our focus as medication gatekeepers may shift from the purpose of the prescription to its safety, making us more like pharmacists than judges.