Marijuana Pipe Dreams
August 26, 2005
John Tierney (OP/ED Columnist), New York Times
When the Supreme Court ruled in June that states could not legalize marijuana for medical uses, Justice Stephen Breyer voted with the majority. But during oral arguments, he suggested an alternative way for patients to get it: let the federal Food and Drug Administration decide if marijuana should be a prescription drug.
"Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum," he said. In theory, that sounds reasonable. But what if the officials doing the regulation are afflicted with a bad case of Reefer Madness?
If you doubt this possibility, you should have been at a hearing that began this week at the Drug Enforcement Administration's headquarters. Lyle Craker, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts, asked an administrative judge to overrule the agency so he could grow marijuana for F.D.A.-approved research projects by other scientists.
Dr. Craker is a well-regarded agronomist who's being supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and both of his senators, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. But for four years he's been stymied by the D.E.A., which first stalled and then finally denied his request for a permit.
There are precedents for his re quest, because researchers already get supplies of other drugs - like heroin, LSD and Ecstasy - from independent laboratories licensed to make them. But researchers who want marijuana have only one legal source: a crop grown in Mississippi and dispensed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Scientists say they need an alternative partly because the government's marijuana is of such poor quality - too many seeds and stems - and partly because the federal officials are so loath to give it out for research into its medical benefits.
Discovering benefits, after all, would undermine the great anti-marijuana campaign that has taken hold in Washington. Marijuana is deemed to be such a powerful "gateway" to other drugs that it's become the top priority in the federal drug war, much to the puzzlement of many scientists, not to mention the police officers who see a lot of worse drugs on the streets.
People with glaucoma and AIDS have sworn by the efficacy of marijuana, and there have been studies by state health departments showing that smoking marijuana is especially good at controlling nausea. Scientists would like to test these effects, but they can't do good studies until they get good marijuana.
Critics of medical marijuana say that it's unnecessary because patients can obtain the benefits of its active ingredient, THC, through a drug that's already available, Marinol. But many patients say it doesn't work as well. They point to the case of the writer Peter McWilliams, who said smoking marijuana was the only way to control the nausea brought on by the mix of drugs he took for AIDS and cancer.
He was forced to switch to Marinol after a D.E.A. investigation led to his conviction for violating federal laws against marijuana. In 2000, several weeks before he was to be sentenced, he was found dead in his bathroom. He had choked on his own vomit.
Phillip Alden, a writer living in Redwood City, Calif., told me that marijuana was a godsend for him in dealing with the effects of AIDS. He said it eased excruciating pains in his fingertips, controlled nausea and enabled him to avoid the wasting syndrome that afflicts AIDS patients who are unable to eat enough food.
But Mr. Alden said only some kinds of marijuana worked - not the weak variety provided by the federal government, which he smoked during a research study.
"It was awful stuff," he said. "They started out with a very low-grade plant, rolled it up with stems and seeds, and then freeze-dried it so that they probably ruined any of the THC crystals. All it did was give me headaches and bronchitis. The bronchitis got so bad I had to drop out of the study."
Mr. Alden was scheduled to testify at this week's hearing, but he told me he had to withdraw because the D.E.A. refused to give him legal immunity if he admitted using marijuana not from the government. It's a shame the judge will be making a decision without hearing him, but I can understand Mr. Alden's hesitancy.
D.E.A. officials have already shown they're quite capable of persecuting someone who uses marijuana to deal with AIDS, and they may well be even more eager to go after someone who encourages research into their least favorite drug. When it comes to marijuana research, the federal policy is "Just Say Know-Nothing."