In Bush era, politics trumps science

May 06, 2006

Murray Light, Columnist, The Buffalo News

The Bush administration will do everything it can to satisfy its deeply conservative base of support. Its decisions often go against the advice of the experts in the field involved and astonishingly enough, even against the advice and counsel of scientific agencies staffed by scientists, physicians and dedicated researchers. Their input doesn't seem to make any impression on the president or his advisers.

The first and most important example of this policy of putting politics over science involved the question of embryonic stem cell research.

Conservatives have opposed the science, and the president sided with them, severely limiting the number of cells that can be used to further the research with government funding. Scientists and physicians had hopes that the science could be a major factor for the treatment and perhaps cures for many major illnesses. The president has based his opposition on religious grounds.

Meanwhile, another health-related issue arose recently, and once again science took a back seat to politics. The Food and Drug Administration issued a brief statement disputing the therapeutic value of marijuana. Eleven states currently allow medical marijuana for conditions such as AIDS and the nausea that frequently results from the chemotherapy treatments so common for cancer patients.

The FDA, an arm of the executive branch of government, has contended that there is no research supporting the drug's medical use. But a 1999 review by the National Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, found marijuana to be moderately well suited in some conditions, including wasting disease from AIDS and the nausea that frequently occurs from chemotherapy.

(I think it's important to note here that I've never smoked marijuana.)

The FDA said it made its announcement on marijuana in response to calls from opponents of its use for medical reasons. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has long made marijuana its top priority, welcomed its announcement.

State officials have said that the FDA announcement would not affect their state laws on the subject. But federal officials said they intend to continue enforcing U.S. laws against marijuana even in states that permit it for medical reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has the right to enforce federal law over state laws.

Advocates of medical marijuana feel the recent FDA announcement will impact negatively on states trying to pass new medical marijuana laws, namely Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico. The Drug Policy Alliance believes its efforts will be hurt by the new FDA statement, which was drafted with the assistance of other federal agencies involved in drug enforcement.

The government is actively discouraging research on the medical benefits of marijuana. Many scientists believe that the government issued the brief FDA statement that is negative on the medicinal value of the drug rather than back research that could undermine the administration's strong negative feeling about the medical use of the drug.

It's interesting to note that when the FDA considers a controversial issue, it generally convenes a panel of experts to fully review the matter and then issue an opinion. In the marijuana matter, the FDA only issued a one-page statement stating that there were no scientific studies supporting medical use of marijuana.

The political pundits say that Bush is determined to leave a lasting legacy at the end of his term. Would he really like to be known as the president who opposed medical progress? I doubt it.

Murray Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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