Marijuana issue requires real studies

July 08, 2004

EDITORIAL, The Spectrum - Utah

Television talk show host Montel Williams is addressing a new audience today.

Instead of his loyal following of viewers, he is lobbying Congress on behalf of the cause of medicinal marijuana. Williams is trying to stir support for a bill by Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., that would loosen federal reins on state medicinal marijuana laws.

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington all have laws on the books allowing sick patients to smoke marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

There are still, however, federal laws that supersede state initiatives and cloud the issue. The U. S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on this issue later this year.

Meanwhile, however, Williams is not the stereotypical pothead looking for a back door to legalization of the controversial herb.

A highly decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran who received a presidential appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999.

As a sufferer of chronic pain, he has smoked marijuana illegally the past several years at his doctor's recommendation to relieve the pain. His anecdotal experience is that it works for him, which has led to his campaign to make the drug available to others.

The decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes has been a hotly debated issue that has been largely rooted in cultural and anecdotal experiences rather than scientific evidence. Of course, since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which reclassified all drugs -- illicit and prescriptive -- into five categories, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency that has seemed more politically driven than scientifically based on this subject, has not allowed enough independent clinical trials on medicinal marijuana.

Tests by the National Cancer Institutes provide more anecdotal evidence, but again fall short of scientific data that shows if medical marijuana really works for people who suffer from glaucoma, epilepsy and chronic pain, as well as those diagnosed with cancer and MS.

Because marijuana has become the green-leafed symbol of the counterculture and has a reputation as a popular recreational drug, it has polarized the political and scientific communities so fiercely that studies resulting in both pro and con opinions have been tainted. Some people argue that its use shouldn't be contemplated. Others want to start growing plants tomorrow and allowing for people to use marijuana to ease pain.

Before we do either, it's time to do some serious studies and clinical tests.

The one point of consensus is that the drug is nowhere near as powerful or addictive as many controlled substances now available by prescription. Morphine, codeine and other regularly prescribed drugs are potent narcotics with highly addictive properties but are still administered through prescription.

The other side of that argument, of course, is that marijuana's full medicinal properties are also not known.

It's time for the federal government to put aside the decades of debate and allow broader testing by doctors and clinicians. Then we'll really know if claims that marijuana has medicinal values are true or just a pipe dream.

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