States Defend Medical Marijuana Policies

March 31, 2004

Todd Zwillich, WebMD

Washington -- State officials defended their enforcement of medical marijuana on Capitol Hill Thursday as lawmakers attacked state medical boards for ignoring federal drug laws in favor of state statutes.

Officials from the Oregon and California state medical boards say they will continue allowing doctors to assist patients in obtaining marijuana as long as it is done in accordance with state laws allowing the practice.

That position has sparked the ire of some lawmakers who accuse state boards of shirking their responsibilities to uphold federal drug laws. Eight states have laws allowing doctors to authorize marijuana use for patients meeting certain medical criteria. The drug remains illegal under federal law, a fact that has prompted federal law enforcement raids in some states.

Marijuana has a wide range of therapeutic applications, including:

* relieving nausea and increasing appetite
* reducing muscle spasms and spasticity
* relieving chronic pain
* reducing intraocular (within the eye) pressure

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Criminal Justice subcommittee, accused state medical boards of allowing doctors to promote marijuana despite a potential for abuse recognized under federal law.

He also noted that while components of marijuana may have been approved by the FDA to treat nausea and other health problems, marijuana is toxic and dangerous when smoked.

'We do not allow people to manufacture their own psychiatric drugs like Prozac or Xanax to treat headaches. Why, then, should we authorize people to grow their own marijuana, when the potential for abuse is high and there is little or no scientific evidence that it can actually treat all of these illnesses?' he says.

Doctors Don't Prescribe It

State officials defended their practices, noting that doctors don't actually prescribe the drug but only provide patients with the authorization needed to seek it legally under state law. A federal appeals court recently upheld a California doctor's ability to discuss marijuana as a treatment option under that state's 1996 medical marijuana law, despite federal prohibitions on the drug.

'Ultimately, the Medical Board of California's position is that marijuana is an authorized treatment under California law,' says Joan M. Jerzak, the board's chief of enforcement.

Jerzak says the board has filed charges against only four doctors for inappropriate use of medical marijuana since 1996.

James Scott, MD, a member of the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners, says that Oregon's doctors do not violate federal law because they do not prescribe marijuana. Oregon last month suspended the medical license of Phillip Leveque, DO, for negligently recommending marijuana use in thousands of patients. Leveque was scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing but did not appear.

A 1999 Institute of Medicine report concluded that marijuana's constituents may have medical benefits for patients with AIDS wasting syndrome, chronic pain, glaucoma, and other disorders. But the report also stated that smoking marijuana was dangerous and should not be considered as a favored route of delivering the drug.

Still, new research shows that marijuana's main ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, could have uses for several medical problems. The agency is funding 17 different clinical trials in patients with spasticity, AIDS, and other disorders.

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