Potheads and Sudafed

April 26, 2006

John Tierney (OP/ED Columnist), New York Times

POLICE officers in the 1960s were fond of bumper stickers reading: The next time you get mugged, call a hippie. Doctors today could use a variation: The next time youre in pain, call a narc.

Washingtons latest prescription for patients in pain is the statement issued last week by the Food and Drug Administration on the supposed evils of medical marijuana. The FDA is being lambasted, rightly, by scientists for ignoring some evidence that marijuana can help severely ill patients.

But its the kind of statement given by a hostage trying to please his captors, who in this case are a coalition of Republican narcs on Capitol Hill, in the White House and at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Theyve been engaged in a long-running war to get the FDA to abandon some of its quaint principles, like the notion that its not fair to deny a useful drug to patients just because a few criminals might abuse it.

The drug cops want everyone to share their mission. They think that doctors and pharmacists should catch patients who abuse painkillers — and that if the doctors or pharmacists arent good enough detectives, they should go to jail for their naivet.

This month, pharmacists across the country are being forced to lock up another menace to society: cold and allergy medicines. Remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a chemical that can illegally be used to make meth, must now be locked behind the counter under a provision in the new Patriot Act.

The FDA opposed these restrictions for pharmacies because theyll drive up health care costs and effectively prevent medicine from reaching huge numbers of people (Americans suffer a billion colds per year). These costs are undeniable, but its unclear that there are any net benefits. In states that previously enacted their own restrictions, the police reported that meth users simply switched from making their own to buying imported drugs that were stronger — and more expensive, so meth users commit more crimes to pay for their habit.

The Sudafed law gives you a preview of whats in store if Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., succeeds in giving the DEA a role in deciding which new drugs get approved. So far, despite a temporary success last year, he hasnt been able to impose this policy, but the FDAs biggest fear is that Congress will let the drug police veto new medications.

Officially, the DEA says it wants to see better drugs on the market. But look at what its done to scientists trying to study medical marijuana. Theyve gotten approval for their experiments from the FDA, but they cant get the high-quality marijuana they need because the DEA wont allow it to be grown. The FDA actually wants to know if the drug works, but the DEA is following the just-say-know-nothing strategy: as long as researchers cant study marijuana, they cant come up with evidence that its effective.

And as long as theres no conclusive evidence that medical marijuana works, the DEA and its allies on Capitol Hill can go on blindly fighting it. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., whos the most rabid drug warrior in Congress, has been pressuring the FDA to crack down on medical marijuana. Last week the agency finally relented: in return for not having to start busting anyone, it issued a statement stressing the potential dangers and lack of extensive clinical trials establishing medical marijuanas effectiveness.

The statement was denounced as a victory of politics over science, but its hard to see what political good it does the Republican Party.

Locking up crack and meth dealers is popular, but voters take a different view of cancer patients who swear by marijuana. Medical marijuana has been approved in referendums in four states that went red in 2004: Nevada, Montana, Colorado and Alaska. For GOP voters fed up with their partys current big-government philosophy, the latest medical treatment from Washingtons narcs is one more reason to stay home this November.


John Tierney writes for the New York Times.

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