Federal Agency Recognizes Marijuana's Medical Benefit for People Living with Cancer

Washington, DC -- A change to the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) website earlier this month has caused a stir in medical marijuana and public policy circles, noting that the federal agency has uncharacteristically crossed a line in recognizing the medical efficacy of marijuana. NCI as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has listed for the first time cannabis (medical marijuana) as a Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) in apparent contrast to information disseminated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which calls marijuana a dangerous drug with no medical value.

The NCI website states that, "The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. In the practice of integrative oncology, the health care provider may recommend medicinal Cannabis not only for symptom management but also for its possible direct antitumor effect." The NCI website further states that, "Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years prior to its current status as an illegal substance."

NCI's recognition of marijuana's medical efficacy comes as a pending federal petition to reschedule cannabis is approaching its 10-year anniversary with no response whatsoever from the federal government. Since the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC) filed its petition in 2002, several additional studies have recognized the therapeutic effects of cannabis, eight more states have passed medical marijuana laws, and the country's two largest physician groups -- American Medical Association and American College of Physicians -- have both called for a review of marijuana's status as a Schedule I substance.

The rescheduling coalition, which includes groups like Americans for Safe Access (ASA), is seeking recognition of marijuana's medical benefits while underscoring its relatively benign side-effects. However, even previous rescheduling petitions have been rejected despite strong recommendations to the contrary. In 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ignored its own judicial recommendations from Judge Francis L. Young, denying the pending petition despite his conclusion that, "The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision." Although final rescheduling determinations are made by DEA, the review process relies heavily on recommendations from HHS, the federal department that oversees NIH and NCI.

As the prescription pill Marinol goes off-patent this year, companies are asking the government to allow them to grow marijuana in order to extract the natural form of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary active chemical in the plant used in the pill. Marinol is made with synthetic THC, but it is cheaper to extract the chemical from the plant. "It is not acceptable to hold millions of sick Americans hostage to a political double standard," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of ASA, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group. "It's time for the Obama Administration to recognize the science, act with integrity, and reschedule marijuana."

Further information:
NCI web page on Cannabis: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page2
Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis: http://www.drugscience.org/about_coalition.html
AMA Statement: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/AMA_Report_Recommendations.pdf
ACP Statement: http://www.acponline.org/advocacy/where_we_stand/other_issues/medmarijuana.pdf

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