Dissembling on medical pot

April 22, 2006

EDITORIAL, Chicago Tribune

The federal government has a long and dismal record of fighting the idea that marijuana has any medical value, and it is not about to let mere facts force a change in policy. The Food and Drug Administration's new pronouncement on the subject is just the latest disgraceful effort to maintain an unconvincing position that has long been rejected by most Americans--not to mention 11 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Besides failing to offer any new evidence for denying cannabis to patients who might benefit from it, the agency also ignores the best information available.

The FDA statement came in response to a request from Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee, an opponent of medical marijuana. It declares that "no human or animal data supported the safety or efficacy of marijuana for general medical use." Measures allowing it, says the agency, "would not serve the interests of public health because they might expose patients to unsafe and ineffective drug products."

Souder, who perceives efforts to permit cannabis therapy as a Trojan horse for legalizing the drug entirely, seconded the FDA. Marijuana can't be a good treatment, he asserted, "because it adversely impacts concentration and memory, the lungs, motor coordination and the immune system."

It may surprise Souder to learn that all sorts of valuable, federally approved medicines may have serious adverse effects, which is not grounds for banning them entirely. As it happens, there is ample evidence that pot can ameliorate some serious ailments that don't always respond to conventional treatments.

A 1999 analysis by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it is "moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting." Medical marijuana has earned the endorsement of The New England Journal of Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians and numerous oncologists.

Its side effects, meanwhile, are exaggerated. In 1988, Francis Young, the Drug Enforcement Agency's own administrative law judge, called cannabis "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."

The FDA stoically pretends all this expert analysis doesn't exist. Its statement is equally dishonest when it says there are no scientific studies proving the value of marijuana--without acknowledging that the government has generally declined to cooperate with scientists who want to conduct clinical trials.

It's a classic scam. Says University of Massachusetts agronomist Lyle Craker, who was refused permission to grow marijuana for his research, in place of the low-quality stuff offered by the government, "The reason there's no good evidence is that they don't want an honest trial."

There is plenty of room for serious debate about the therapeutic potential of cannabis. But the government clearly thinks that what it doesn't know can't hurt it.


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