Stop the federal war on medical marijuana

June 05, 2002

Andrew Weil, San Francisco Chronicle

TODAY, in dozens of cities and towns across the United States, something remarkable happened: Thousands of people battling cancer, AIDS and other terrible illnesses, their families, friends and supporters delivered cease-and-desist orders to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to stop it from blocking their access to a needed medication.

Their request was so simple, so obviously correct that it is heartbreaking that people -- many very seriously ill -- were forced to deliver their message in this way, with many risking arrest. But as individuals who have found that medical marijuana relieves their symptoms when conventional medicines fail, they felt they had no choice: The federal government continues to fight an irrational war against medical marijuana, and the sick and struggling are its principal victims.

Make no mistake: The government's demonization of marijuana is irrational. When I first published a study in the journal, Science, on marijuana's physical and psychological effects back in 1968, I was certain that medical use of the plant would be legal within five years. This is, after all, a medicinal plant for which no fatal dose has ever been established and that has been used in folk medicine for millennia.

Like all medicines, marijuana has its drawbacks, particularly in smoked form. It is not a panacea. I support research into safer delivery systems such as low-temperature vaporizers or inhalers, which offer the fast action of inhaled medicine without the irritants found in smoke. Still, I have seen in my own studies that marijuana is less toxic than most pharmaceutical drugs in current use, and is certainly helpful for some patients, including those with wasting syndromes, chronic muscle spasticity and intractable nausea.

Unfortunately, the only legal substitute available now -- a prescription pill containing a synthetic THC, marijuana's main psychoactive component -- is not EFFECTIVE enough for many patients. I hear regularly from patients that the pill does not work as well as the natural herb, and causes much greater intoxication.

I am far from alone in this view. The Institute of Medicine, in a report commissioned by the White House "drug czar," concluded in 1999 that there is convincing evidence of marijuana's value in relieving nausea, weight loss, and other symptoms caused by diseases such as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, as well as by the harsh drugs often used to treat these conditions. The institute concluded that for some patients the potential benefits clearly outweigh the risks, and that ways should be found to make marijuana available to them.

As a physician, I am frustrated that I cannot prescribe marijuana for patients who might benefit from it. At the very least I would like to be able to refer them to a safe, reliable, quality-controlled source.

But both the Clinton and Bush administrations have pursued a policy that the New England Journal of Medicine has called "misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane." They have declined to act on the Institute of Medicine's recommendation, and have conducted a series of raids on medical marijuana cooperatives operating legally under California law. Sick people are forced to turn to street sources, or simply suffer without relief.

So it comes to this: Desperately ill people, their friends, families and loved ones, standing outside DEA offices, pleading with their government not to deprive them of medicine that relieves their suffering.

It should never have been necessary, and one can only hope that the administration and Congress will listen.

Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Program in Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine, University of Arizona, is the author of "Eight Weeks to Optimum Health" (Ballantine, 1997).


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