The New Deal

April 19, 2009

Ashley Lee, The UCSD Guardian

Though illegal under federal law, 13 states — including California — permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

During former President George W. Bush’s tenure, the federal government set a precedent of overriding state laws and raiding legal medical marijauna dispensaries. On March 18, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, on behalf of President Barack Obama, assured the nation that federal laws banning medical marijuana will not interfere with individual state regulations; however, Drug Enforcement Administration raids on California dispensaries in recent months have provednotherwise.

Dispensaries have sprouted ubiquitously to meet growing demand, due largely to the affordability of the drug compared to standard pharmaceuticals, seeing as at least 45 million Americans under the age of 65 don’t have access to affordable health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

On April 14, 2009, Americans for Safe Access, a national advocacy organization with more than 30,000 members in 40 states, challenged the validity of the longstanding federal assertion that “marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” ASA called the statement — issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration — outdated and reactionary.

ASA claims marijuana to be an effective pain reliever for various ailments, including muscular dystrophy and glaucoma. Additionally, studies conducted within the California Medical Marijuana Research Program, established by the University of California, have demonstrated that the drug restores the appetites of nauseated patients with AIDS and cancer.

However, several federal regulations and restrictions on not only distribution, but also research grants and access to approved research-grade crops, prevent large-scale studies from being conducted effectively.

“The federal government is in a position where they have a double standard on medical cannabis,” said Kris Hermes, a public relations representative for ASA. “They refuse to admit there is medical value to the plant itself, but even officials who work for National Institute on Drug Abuse claim that its components have medical value.”

Last year, Mark Wallace, professor of anesthesiology at the UCSD School of Medicine, studied the pain-relieving quality of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a potent chemical found in the marijuana plant, by injecting patients with the pain-producer capsaicin — a pepper extract — after they had inhaled the drug. He concluded that a balance must be reached for marijuana to effectively decrease pain, and that too much can actually increase pain. Currently, Wallace is studying the effects of marijuana on patients with diabetes.

“With the center for medicinal marijuana research, we’re coming out with some good studies, but it’s only the beginning, and the problem is that they’re single-site studies,” Wallace said. “In order to get really good evidence, you need multicenter, blinded, randomized studies with lots of patients. If you’re doing multicenter studies from different states, then you have to deal with different state laws, so it makes it very challenging. Until the federal government lifts their restrictions, it’s going to be extremely difficult to study.”

The federal government has placed heavy restrictions on medical marijuana research, including a provision limiting the cultivation of research-grade marijuana to only ElSohly Laboratories, Incorporated — a private government-sponsored company in Mississippi.

Wallace said this grants complete regulatory power to the government regarding the approval of any study, a process that stalled his own research for more than two years.

Five years ago, ASA filed charges against the Department of Health and Human Services for distributing false information to the public regarding the medicinal value of marijuana.

Because no action was taken, the organization filed suit again in 2007, arguing that the federal government was guilty of breaking its own Data Quality Act, a law “ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies.”

The lawsuit was rejected later that year by the U.S. District Court.

Despite research supporting the use of marijuana as a pain reliver, gleaned through studies like Wallace’s, the federal government has been slow to reverse its longstanding classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, for which there is no accepted medical use.

“The health sciences have indicated that marijuana can be a useful pain reliever for some people who do not respond to other medications,” said political science professor David Mares, who specializes in international drug trafficking, politics and policy. “If science were the basis of our marijuana laws, its classification in our Schedule of Controlled Substances would have to be altered to permit medicinal use. Of course, if science were the basis of our drug laws, tobacco would be a Schedule 1 substance: highly addictive, no currently accepted medical use in the U.S. and no safe way to use it under medical supervision.”

Lawyers for the organization sat before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on April 14 to appeal the lower court’s 2007 decision, claiming it was based on conservative values and politics rather than tangible scientific evidence. They also said that disregarding abundant scientific studies contradicts the new administration’s promise.

“What amazes me is that marijuana is illegal for medicinal use in this country, yet there are other drugs that are much more risky and have much more abuse potential than marijuana: narcotics, opiates, morphine-like drugs … and yet those are legal for medicinal uses,” Wallace said. “There’s no known lethal dosage of marijuana, but there’s a clear lethal dose of the opiates.”


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