War On Medicine

June 26, 2006

Steph Sherer, OpEd, Tom Paine

Today, Congress will consider whether to prevent the DEA from raiding, arresting and prosecuting patients who use medicinal cannabis in those states that have passed laws supporting this medical therapy.

The House will be deciding on an amendment to the Department of Justice appropriations budget sponsored by Reps. Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat, and Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, that would prevent the Department of Justice from using its ever-shrinking DEA budget dollars on actions against medical cannabis patients. The amendment is simple in scope and effect. It does not change any federal laws regarding medicinal cannabis. It does not cut any funds from the DEA budget. This amendment only directs that precious DEA dollars be used for other, more pressing matters.

Garry Silva, a patient who uses medicinal cannabis, spent two days in mid-June wheeling his way through the halls of the Capitol in support of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment. Gary is a member of Americans for Safe Access—a group dedicated to defending patients’ access to medical cannabis—and suffers from chronic pain due to a degenerative back condition and the effects of a violent federal raid on his house. He traveled from his home in California to plead with members of Congress to stop the DEA from raiding and arresting seriously ill patients in the 11 states that allow doctors to recommend and patients to use medicinal cannabis.

Garry became a medicinal cannabis patient when he and his doctor realized that the seven different opiate pain medications he was using were not only limiting his ability to function day-to-day but were causing irreversible damage to his kidneys and liver. By using medicinal cannabis, Garry was able to return to the family business that he has been running for over 27 years, and be active in his children’s lives and his community. But on March 14, in the middle of the night, Garry and his wife, Krista, were victims of a raid by DEA agents on their house that left the family shakened and resulted in further damage to Garry’s spine. No arrests were made or charges filed.

Garry was joined by other members of Americans for Safe Access, including three other state registered medicinal cannabis patients, two medical doctors and three research scientists who specialize in studying cannabis therapies. Walking the halls in two teams—each made up of patients, doctors and scientists—ASA members were able to put a face to the science behind medical cannabis, as well as the patients’ need for this treatment. The ASA teams were not there to debate the merits of medicinal cannabis—although the researcher and physician team members were well armed with the facts about cannabis’ medicinal value—but rather to ask that seriously ill individuals and their care-givers who comply with state law not be required to live in fear of the federal government.

The most comprehensive study on medicinal cannabis science—one commissioned by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Strategy and completed in 1999—recognizes the medicinal use of cannabis in some instances and calls for more research to be conducted. Yet the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Addiction, the only legal manufacturer of research cannabis, refuses to allow any research institution to grow cannabis for research.

The issue of cannabis as medicine continues to challenge the current administration, so much so that a month after the violent law enforcement raid against Garry, the Federal Drug Administration made a statement dismissing medical cannabis. The FDA introduced no new evidence to back up its claim, thus totally ignoring the extensive research presented in the 1999 report. Even more confusing is the fact that the FDA has already approved medicinal cannabis use. In the early 1980s, the FDA created the Investigational New Drug Compassionate Access Program that provided patients with certain medical conditions to receive monthly shipments of federally grown and rolled cannabis cigarettes. Though the government attempted to close the program in 1991 because it undercut their policy of total prohibition, today, seven people still enlisted in this program continue to receive cannabis from the federal government every month, grown and paid for with federal tax dollars.

Garry Silva and his partners at ASA will not allow the federal government to play politics with science. Our government should not stand in the way of the medicine that has been legally recommended by the doctors of thousands of Americans in 11 states. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment is an important measure that will protect patients and respect state laws. It will also help scientists and doctors work with Congress to create a sane national medicinal cannabis policy.

ASA hopes that we are successful in changing federal policy before any more patients are disrespected, mistreated or violently attacked.

Steph Sherer is executive director of  Americans for Safe Access, a 30,000-member organization fighting for safe and legal access to cannabis for treatment and research.

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