Pages tagged "FDA/HHS"


Cannabinopathic Medicine: Lester Grinspoon, M.D.'s New Coinage

I am honored and delighted to be able to publish here for the first time a new comprehensive piece written by Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, entitled "Cannabinopathic Medicine". Dr. Grinspoon started writing this piece in 2012, when I was privileged to read an early draft and give editorial suggestions. He has been looking for a suitable venue for publishing it where it could be read widely. I am grateful that he agreed to allow me to use this blog space to share it. It is approximately 6,000 words and well worth a read. First, a brief introduction. Dr. Grinspoon, who is in his eighties, is a great physician and researcher who has been a co-author, instructive mentor, and guide of mine. He is known for his pioneering work on the social and medicinal uses of cannabis, but before that, he made significant contributions such as introducing the use of lithium in the treatment of bipolar disorder, the starting of the Harvard Mental Health letter, and many other achievements such as senior psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston for 40 years, fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychiatric Association, founding editor of the The American Psychiatric Association Annual Review, and editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter for fifteen years, to name a few. It is a wonderful turn of events that Dr. Grinspoon's home state Massachusetts passed a voter initiative by wide margin to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis for patients with conditions that a physician believes may benefit from its use. That law went into effect this year and now, as of this month, Harvard Medical School-affiliated faculty, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Medical Society, are producing and editing AMA-certified continuing medical education online course series on the medicinal uses of cannabis, vindicating Dr. Grinspoon's remarkable foresight from over 40 years prior. Without further adieu, here is Dr. Grinspoon's latest piece on cannabis use, where we are going with it as a as society, and where we should be going. Cannabinopathic Medicine byLester Grinspoon, M.D.
A native of Central Asia, cannabis (hemp) may have been cultivated as long as 10,000 years ago. It was certainly cultivated in China by 4000 BC and in Turkestan by 3000 BC. It has long been used as a medicine in India, China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and South America. The first evidence of the medicinal use of cannabis is an herbal published during the reign of the Chinese emperor Chen Nung 5000 years ago. It was recommended for malaria, constipation, rheumatic pains, "absentmindedness", and "female disorders." Another Chinese herbalist recommended a mixture of hemp, resin, and wine as an analgesic during surgery. In India cannabis had been recommended to quicken the mind, lower fevers, induce sleep, cure dysentery, stimulate appetite, improve digestion, relieve headache, and cure venereal disease. In Africa it was used for dysentery, malaria, and other fevers. Today certain tribes treat snakebite with hemp or smoke it before childbirth. Hemp was also noted as a remedy by Galen and other physicians of the classical and Hellenistic eras, and it was highly valued in medieval Europe. The English clergyman Robert Burton, in his famous work The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, suggested the use of cannabis in the treatment of depression. The New English Dispensatory of 1764 recommended applying hemp roots to the skin for inflammation, a remedy that was already popular in Eastern Europe. The Edinburgh New Dispensary of 1794 included a long description of the effects of hemp and stated that the oil was useful in the treatment of coughs, venereal disease, and urinary incontinence. However, in the West cannabis did not come into its own as a medicine until the mid-19th century. The first Western physician to take an interest in cannabis as medicine was W.B. O' Shaughnessy, a young professor at the Medical College of Calcutta, who had observed its use in India. He gave cannabis to animals, satisfied himself that it was safe, and began to use it with patients suffering from rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, and tetanus. In a report published in 1839, he wrote that he had found Cannabis Indica, (a solution of cannabis in alcohol, taken orally) to be an effective analgesic. He was also impressed with its muscle-relaxant properties and called it "an anticonvulsive remedy of the greatest value." O'Shaughnessy returned to England in 1842 and provided cannabis to pharmacists. Doctors in Europe and the United States soon began to prescribe it for a variety of physical conditions. Cannabis was even given to Queen Victoria for the treatment of her painful pre-menstrual cramps by her court physician. It was admitted to the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850 and commercial cannabis preparations soon became widely distributed through drugstores. Pharmacies welcomed the arrival of this "new" medicine, Cannabis Indica, because at that time their shelves held few truly effective drugs to offer the practitioners of allopathic medicine. As its use became increasingly widespread, clinical reports on cannabis accumulated and by the turn of the century, more than 100 papers were published in the Western medical literature recommending it for various illnesses and discomforts and extolling its remarkably limited toxicity. The decline in the usage of Cannabis Indica began toward the end of the century. Both the potency of cannabis preparations and its absorption from the bowel were too variable, and individual responses to orally ingested cannabis seemed erratic and unpredictable. Another reason for the neglect of research on the analgesic properties of cannabis was the greatly increased use of opiates after the invention of the hypodermic syringe in the 1850s allowed soluble drugs to be injected for fast relief of pain; cannabis products are insoluble in water and so cannot easily be administered by injection. The end of the 19th century saw the development of such synthetic drugs as aspirin, chloral hydrate, and barbiturates. Two of the most common symptoms for which Cannabis Indica was prescribed were pain and insomnia, and now physicians could prescribe easy-to-take pills of known potency for these two problems, hastening the decline of cannabis as a medicine. But the new drugs had striking disadvantages. More than 1000 people die from aspirin-induced bleeding each year in the United States, and barbiturates are, of course, far more dangerous. But the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the ultimate death-knell for Cannabis Indica. This law was the culmination of a campaign organized by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry Anslinger in which the public was led to believe that cannabis, now commonly referred to as marijuana, was addictive and that its use led to violent crimes, psychosis, and mental deterioration; it is now confined to Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 as a drug that has a high potential for abuse, lacks accepted medical use, and is unsafe for use even under medical supervision. The film Reefer Madness, made as part of Anslinger's campaign, may be a joke to the sophisticated today, but it was once regarded as a serious attempt to address a social problem; the atmosphere and attitudes it exemplified and promoted continue to influence our culture, albeit much less so today. The Marijuana Tax Act was not directly aimed at the medical use of cannabis; its purpose was to discourage recreational marijuana smoking. Almost incidentally the law made medical use of cannabis difficult because of the extensive paperwork and fees required of doctors who wanted to prescribe it. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics followed up with "anti-divergent" regulations that contributed to physicians' disenchantment. Its removal from the United States Pharmacopeia and the National Formulary in 1942 signaled both the end of physicians' interest in and allopathic medicine's institutional embrace of cannabis. Furthermore, physicians allowed themselves to become ignorant about this drug as they have, since the mid-1930s, been increasingly exposed along with every other citizen to the deceptive propaganda against marijuana propagated by the United States government and such private organizations as the Partnership for a Drug Free America. The concept of marijuana as a medicine virtually disappeared for several decades. Then in the 1960s, as large numbers of people began to use marijuana recreationally, claims of its medical utility began to appear, not in the medical literature but in the form of letters to popular magazines like Playboy. Typically these accounts were written by surprised and excited recreational users who had serendipitously discovered that marijuana relieved one or another of a variety of symptoms and syndromes. Over the next several decades, the grapevine word of these rediscovered medical utilities continued to grow. With the advent of the AIDS epidemic and the discovery of marijuana's ability to reduce the nausea and therefore the threat of the "weight reduction syndrome of AIDS", this reappearance of the concept of cannabis as a medicine gathered enough momentum to be publicly palpable. It was at this time that public pressure on the government to reconsider its obdurately held position developed in earnest, but with little success to date at the federal level. There is an important difference in the way cannabis was used as a medicine in the latter half of the 19th century and the way it has been generally administered since its reemergence as a sub rosa medicine in the mid-20th century. In its earlier iteration it was dispensed orally as an alcoholic solution; now it is primarily taken through the pulmonary system as smoke. The emergence of cannabis as a recreational drug began in the early part of the 20th century and has continued to grow. One of the reasons it has grown to the point where it can now be considered a part of Western culture is its introduction as a smokable drug. A good deal of mystery and uncertainty surrounds the story of the "reefer's" debut in the United States. It is generally thought that in the early decades of the 20th century the custom of smoking "the weed" in cigarette form traveled with groups of itinerant Mexican workers across the border in the southern and southwestern states; it is now overwhelmingly the mode of administration used by the millions who use it as a medicine or for any other reason today. This change in the route of administration has greatly enhanced its usefulness as a medicine because it solved the problem of providing the correct dose. One of the major problems that doctors in the 19th century faced with Cannabis Indica was that there were no reliable bioassays at that time and so physicians could never be sure that they had prescribed the correct dose. If too much was prescribed, the patient might experience discomfort in the form of anxiety but this would not be immediately evident because it takes about one to two hours for the effects of orally administered cannabis to be experienced. However, because physicians of the 19th century understood that this was a drug of unusually limited toxicity, they were not as concerned about overdosing as they were about providing an inadequate dose. The major advantage of smoking is the rapidity with which the medicinal effect appears; symptom relief will occur in a matter of minutes. And perhaps even more importantly, this very rapid feedback allows the patient to titrate his own dose for his particular symptom with much more precision than can his physician. He just leisurely puffs until one of two things happens; he either begins to experience symptom-relief or he becomes somewhat high or anxious at which point he stops. It is no longer believed that the smoke from marijuana is harmful to pulmonary or oropharyngeal tissues. But, for those patients who prefer not to smoke, there now is the option of using an instrument called a vaporizer which allows one to inhale the cannabinoids free of the combustion products of the cannabis plant. In what may be the first attempt to reestablish the place of cannabis in mainstream allopathic medicine, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 1972 petitioned the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, later renamed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to transfer marijuana to Schedule II so that the research necessary for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval could be undertaken. Without this approval it cannot be clinically researched nor can it be legally prescribed. As the proceedings continued, other parties joined, including the Physicians Association for AIDS Care. It was only in 1986, after many years of legal maneuvering, that the DEA acceded to the demand for public hearings required by law. During the hearings, which lasted two years, many patients and physicians testified and thousands of pages of documentation were introduced. In 1988 the DEA's own Administrative Law Judge, Francis L. Young, declared that marijuana in its natural form fulfilled the legal requirement of currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. He added that it was "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." His order that the marijuana plant be transferred to Schedule II was overruled, not by any medical authority, but by the DEA itself, which issued a final rejection of all pleas for reclassification in March 1992. Meanwhile, growing demand forced the FDA to institute the Individual Treatment IND (commonly referred to as a Compassionate IND) for the use of physicians whose patients needed marijuana. The application process was made enormously complicated, and most physicians did not want to become involved, especially since many believed there was some stigma attached to prescribing marijuana. Between 1976 and 1988 the government reluctantly awarded about a half-dozen Compassionate INDs for the use of marijuana. In 1989 the FDA was deluged with new applications from people with AIDS, and the number granted rose to 34 within the year. In June 1991, the Public Health Service announced that the program would be suspended because it undercuts the Administration's opposition to the use of illegal drugs. After that no new Compassionate IND's were granted, and the program was discontinued in March 1992. Four patients are still receiving marijuana under the original program; for everyone else it is at the federal level an outlaw medicine. Despite its federal illegality, beginning in 1996 with California's passage of its Proposition 215, 18 states and the District of Columbia have established legislation which makes it possible for patients suffering from a variety of disorders to use the drug legally with a recommendation from a physician.  Unfortunately, because each state arrogates to itself the right to define which symptoms and syndromes may be lawfully treated with cannabis, many patients with legitimate claims to the therapeutic usefulness of this plant must continue to use it illegally and therefore endure the extra layer of anxiety imposed by its illegality.  California and Colorado are the two states in which the largest number of patients for whom it would be medically useful have the freedom to access it legally.  New Jersey appears to be shaping up as one of the most restrictive, and for that reason it is likely that only a small fraction of the pool of patients who would find marijuana to be as or more useful than the invariably more toxic conventional drugs it will displace will be allowed legal access to it.  The framers of the New Jersey legislation may fear what they see as chaos in the distribution of medical marijuana in California and Colorado, a fear born of their concern that the more liberal parameters of medical use adopted in these states have allowed its access to many people who use it for other than strictly medical reasons. Because so many people are now having an opportunity to observe relatives or friends who are successfully, safely and relatively inexpensively using marijuana as a medicine,  it will not be long before an overwhelming majority of citizens demand the same rights.   There are now six other states working on medical marijuana legislation; this is a reflection of recent polls which show that more than 70% of American citizens now support the legal availability of marijuana as a medicine.  These additional states and their citizens will inadvertently become part of an ongoing large social experiment in how best to deal with the reinvention of the "cannabis as medicine" phenomenon.  Already we have learned a great deal from this ongoing experiment; one of the most important is that the states which have the more restricted and limited medical indications for allowable use of marijuana as a medicine have the largest number of patients who are compelled to use it illegally, while those which are the least restricted with respect to allowable medical indications unintentionally provide it to many people who use it for other purposes. Shortly after O’ Shaughnessy introduced cannabis as a new medicine, modern Western medicine (allopathic medicine) signaled its acceptance when it was entered into the various Western pharmacopeia in the mid-19th century.  It was expected, certainly by the 1990s, that it would be readmitted as a legitimate medicine, given the mountain of largely anecdotal evidence which establishes both its efficacy and safety,  and its potential (once free of the prohibition tariff) to be much less expensive than pharmaceutical industry products it will replace.  The two major agencies of this resistance to its readmission are the US government and the medical/pharmaceutical establishment. Today drugs must undergo rigorous, expensive and time-consuming research to win approval by the FDA before they can be marketed as medicines.  The first step made in trying to move the federal government was to petition it to move cannabis from its Schedule I status in the Controlled Substances Act to Schedule II so that it would then be possible to do the kinds of controlled studies essential to the presentation of any new drug to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval in accordance with the protocol used by the pharmaceutical industry.  As noted above, the first attempt to petition the FDA and DEA to move marijuana to Schedule II was initiated in 1972 and after two decades of hearings and delays the DEA rejected all pleas for reclassification.  Another two decades have passed and, with the exception of a handful of small-to-medium sized randomized controlled trials of smoked cannabis in chronic pain, spasticity, and wasting syndrome, the federal government continues to block the possibility of demonstrating that marijuana could satisfy the FDA criteria for a safe and efficacious addition to the pharmacopeia by continuing to insist, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it is properly placed in Schedule I. In actuality it is now clear that marijuana no more belongs in Schedule I than does aspirin. The purpose of the FDA testing is to protect the consumer by establishing both safety and efficacy.  First, the drug's safety (or rather, limited toxicity) is established through animal and then human experiments.  Next, double-blind controlled studies are conducted to determine whether the drug has more than a placebo effect and is more useful than an available drug.  As the difference between drug and placebo may be small, large numbers of patients are often needed in these studies for a statistically significant effect.  Medical and governmental authorities insist that before marijuana is made legally available to patients, this kind of study should be performed for each of the indications for which it is proposed to be used.  At the same time, the government refuses to reconsider its inappropriate assignment of marijuana to Schedule I, therein making it impossible by imposing a tight and heavily controlled monopoly on research-approved cannabis production and distribution to undertake the kind of studies presently demanded by the FDA for its reintegration into modern Western medicine. But with the accumulation of an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence,  it has now become doubtful whether these FDA rules should apply to marijuana.  There is now little question about its safety.  It has been used for thousands of years by millions of people with very little evidence of significant toxicity.  Similarly, no further double-blind studies are needed to prove marijuana’s efficacy.  Any astute clinician who has some knowledge of the accumulated clinical experience of patients who have used marijuana as a medicine knows that it is efficacious to some degree for many people with various symptoms and syndromes.  Anecdotal evidence commands much less attention than it once did, yet it is the source of much of our knowledge of synthetic medicines as well as plant derivatives.  Controlled experiments were not needed to recognize the therapeutic potential of chloral hydrate, barbiturates, aspirin, curare, insulin, or penicillin--- pharmaceuticals introduced  before the double-blind controlled study was invented. Anecdotes present a problem that has always haunted medicine: the anecdotal fallacy or the fallacy of enumeration of favorable circumstances (counting the hits and ignoring the misses).  If many people suffering from, say, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis take marijuana and only a few get much better relief than they could get from conventional drugs, those few patients would stand out and come to our attention.  They and their physicians would understandably be enthusiastic about marijuana and might proselytize for it.  These people are not dishonest, but they are not dispassionate observers.  Therefore, some may regard it as irresponsible to suggest on the basis of anecdotes that cannabis may help people with a variety of disorders.  That might be a problem if cannabis were a dangerous drug but, in fact, it is remarkably safe.  Even in the unlikely event that only a few people with multiple sclerosis find that it provides relief from muscle spasm, it can be argued that cannabis should be available to them because it costs so little to produce and the risks are so small. The benefits of any medicine must be weighed against the risks.  Fortunately, there is unusually good evidence on the potential health hazards of marijuana---far better than the evidence on most prescription drugs.  Not only has cannabis been used for thousands of years by many millions of people, but there is much recent research on its safety inspired by the federal government's interest in discovering toxic effects to justify its policy of prohibition.  The potential dangers of  marijuana when taken for pleasure and its possible usefulness as a medicine are historically and practically interrelated issues: historically, because the arguments used to justify the suppression of recreational use have had a disastrous influence on views of its medical potential; practically, because it is more likely to be safe as a medicine if it is relatively safe as a euphoriant.  As the evidence makes it increasingly clear that cannabis is relatively benign, it is becoming more and more difficult to deny that a risk-benefit analysis now satisfies all requirements for medical use. Penicillin was discovered in 1929, but the discovery was ignored by the medical establishment for more than a decade until the first clinical trial with six patients who suffered from a variety of infections; all were successfully treated.  After this debut in 1941, penicillin rapidly earned the reputation as the wonder drug of the 1940s.  It earned that reputation for three reasons: it was remarkably non-toxic, even at high doses; it could be produced inexpensively on a large scale; and it was extremely versatile, acting against microorganisms that cause a great variety of diseases, from pneumonia to syphilis.  In all three respects cannabis suggests parallels: it is remarkably safe; once it is free of the prohibition tariff it will be inexpensive; and it is effective against a large number of symptoms and syndromes.  Penicillin did not undergo modern FDA approval scrutiny because its safety and efficacy had been well established by the time the FDA adopted the present protocol for approving new drugs.  Marijuana is now in the same position vis-à-vis the FDA; it has accumulated, both from recreational and medicinal use, more than enough evidence of its safety and efficacy. As its reputation as a medicine grew, so did the demand for legal access.  In 1996, California became the first state to provide legal (as far as the state was concerned)  access for specified signs and symptoms and under controlled conditions.  Over the next 15 years 16 other states and the District of Columbia followed suit, but the defined parameters of availability, particularly the rules for distribution and the medical reasons for which use would be allowed, have generally become more constricted.  In these states the only involvement with the medical establishment is the requirement that the patient receive a note from a physician stating that he believes the patient's condition would be helped by cannabis; these notes allow the patient to receive a state-issued medical marijuana registration card which may cost $100 or more annually.  Each state establishes its own rules for the growing and dispensing of medical marijuana.  These states now allow thousands of people to legally purchase a growing variety of marijuana products upon the presentation of these cards or, in some states, the physician’s letter to one of the state-sanctioned dispensaries.  It is estimated that 2 1/2 to 3% of the residents of California are now credentialed to buy marijuana legally in what is estimated to be between a 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 billion dollar business.  One has only to visit one of the California dispensaries to see how sophisticated this industry is becoming, with a range of newly developed cannabis products; beyond having perhaps a dozen or more different strains of herbal cannabis to choose from, there is a large choice of edible and even topical marijuana medications.  The patient who wants to use a pipe, bong or vaporizer will find a large and growing selection to choose from.  There now exist a few laboratories equipped to measure the percentage of individual cannabinoids and terpenes, and to provide assurance against contamination with insecticides or fungi. The rapidly increasing number of patients who are now seeking cannabis as a medicine is fueling a burgeoning medical marijuana enterprise which is becoming increasingly sophisticated.  There are the growers who are becoming more adept at breeding new strains which may be more beneficial to patients with particular needs, as for example the present effort to develop strains high in cannabidiol (CBD,a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) .  There are now a number of publications aimed at the medical marijuana community, most notably O'Shaughnessy's, the Journal of Cannabis Clinical Practice, published in San Francisco.  The recently formed physicians’ professional organization, the Society of Cannabis Clinicians (SCC), promotes clinical cannabis research. Despite harassment by the federal authorities, especially in California, all aspects of this  alternative medicine which is beginning to look like a new school or philosophy of medicine will continue to grow and become more sophisticated as it is embraced by more and more patients, legally or illegally.  This new medicine, bolstered by the fundamental understandings in biology and physiology that have come from the discovery and study of the endogenous cannabinoid signaling system, which might be called "cannabinopathic medicine", joins other alternative schools of medicine such as naturopathic medicine, homeopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine.  Cannabinopathic medicine is being practiced all over this country, openly in the states which have made it legal, and clandestinely in those which have yet to do so.  Osteopathic medicine, which was first practiced in the latter part of the 19th century, has now moved so close to allopathic medicine in its training and practice that it has become integrated with modern Western medicine.  In the early days of medical marijuana it was assumed that it would become integrated into Western medicine as a new therapeutic; thus the effort which began in 1972 to persuade the federal government to change its Controlled Substances Act Schedule I status to Schedule II as the essential first step toward collecting the kind of data necessary for the FDA's medicinal drug approval process.  While the government has in the past made tentative moves in the direction of accepting the reality of marijuana's medical capacities, including the now defunct Compassionate IND program and the relatively recent decisions to move synthetic THC (Marinol) from Schedule I to Schedule II, and several years later to Schedule III (less harmful than drugs in Schedules I and II), it has steadfastly refused to release herbal marijuana from its Schedule I restrictions. Today, even if it were free of its Schedule I chains, its path to legitimacy as a pharmaceutical faces other obstacles.  A big one is the availability of funding for the kind of research which would allow it to be presented to the FDA.  The cost of this research runs to upwards of $800 million per drug.  Pharmaceutical companies do not undertake such costly research unless they have been awarded the 20 year new drug patent and are reasonably sure that, once approved, the drug will sell for the price they will need to charge during that exclusive period to cover these costs and make a profit.  The pharmaceutical companies, however, have no interest in herbal marijuana because it cannot be patented. Only in the case of some orphan drugs does the government support these developmental costs.  An exception to this rule occurred in the early 1980s when the government provided major funding to a small pharmaceutical company, Unimed, towards its development of a synthetic THC which was called dronabinol (Marinol).  The government assumed that with Marinol’s legal availability it would then be possible to assert that there was no longer a need for medicinal marijuana as there was now a commercially available cannabinoid pharmaceutical product.  The problem with this strategy became obvious to every patient who tried to substitute Marinol for smoked or ingested marijuana; it simply did not work nearly as well as herbal marijuana.  The primary reason that some patients use Marinol today is because it is legal. The vast majority of people who use cannabis as a medicine must suffer the anxiety, uncertainty, and risk associated with obtaining and using an illegal substance.  The responses of physicians, as indicated by patients’ stories, vary a great deal.  With the exception of a small minority of physicians, such as those who comprise the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, physicians’ attitudes toward marijuana as a medicine generally range from outspokenly negative to varying degrees of  skepticism; a few are hostile or contemptuous, some are indifferent or unconvinced, and a growing number offer at least some encouragement or moral support.  Unfortunately, even the most sympathetic are either afraid to do more because of the law or are unable to provide advice because they have been misinformed about cannabis and simply know too little about its therapeutic value.  Physicians of a century ago knew much more about cannabis than do contemporary physicians whose education about new drugs comes largely from the pharmaceutical industry.  Today's physicians are often introduced to therapeutic marijuana by their patients, but even those physicians who become educated about this drug may be afraid to recommend what they know or suspect to be the best treatment out of fear that they might lose their reputations, licenses, and careers.  Even if marijuana were available as a Schedule II medicine, pharmacies would be reluctant to carry it and physicians would hesitate to prescribe it.  Through computerized monitoring, the DEA could know who was receiving prescription marijuana and how much.  It could hound physicians who, by its standards, prescribed cannabis too freely or for reasons it considered unacceptable.  The potential for harassment would be extremely discouraging.  Unlike other Schedule II drugs, such as cocaine and morphine, cannabis has many potential medical uses rather than just a few.  Many people would undoubtedly try to persuade their doctors that they had a legitimate claim to a prescription.  Doctors would not want the responsibility of making such decisions if they were constantly under threat of discipline by the DEA.  Furthermore, many doctors would not consider prescribing cannabis at all because they are victims of the government's misinformation campaign.  Some still believe and promote such hoary myths as the notion that marijuana is addictive or leads to the use of more dangerous drugs. Despite the growing appreciation of its safety and usefulness as a medicine there is, after more than three decades of effort, little hope that herbal marijuana will soon be integrated into modern Western medicine.  And even if it were, there would be enormous problems in controlling the distribution of a controlled medicine which has now become an  established and popular Western culture recreational drug  The pharmaceutical industry will continue to develop cannabinoid products and the government will make Control Substances Act scheduling accommodations, as they did with Marinol, to make them available as prescription drugs.  Some of them will be very useful and a few may, for specific symptoms or syndromes, be more useful than herbal marijuana, but it is unlikely that they will ever displace it; herbal marijuana will always provide more choice, be less expensive and more readily available.  Because the commercial success of its cannabinoid products will vary directly with the severity of the prohibition, the pharmaceutical industry will predictably put even more pressure on the government to maintain or even strengthen its prohibition. However, the realities of human need are incompatible with the demand for a legally enforceable distinction between medicine and all other uses of cannabis.  Marijuana simply does not conform to the conceptual boundaries established by 20th century institutions.  It is truly a sui generis substance; is there another relatively benign drug which is capable of heightening many pleasures, has a large and growing number of medical uses and has the potential to enhance some individual human capacities?  The only workable way of realizing the potential of this remarkable substance, including its full medical potential, is to free it from the present dual set of regulations – – those that control prescription drugs in general and the special criminal laws that control psychoactive substances.  These mutually reinforcing laws establish a set of social categories that strangle its uniquely multifaceted potential.  The only way out is to cut the knot by giving marijuana the same status as alcohol – – legalizing it for adults for all uses and removing it entirely from both the medical and criminal control systems. Perhaps in part because so many Americans have discovered for themselves that marijuana is both relatively benign and remarkably useful, moral consensus about the evil of cannabis is becoming uncertain and shallow.  The authorities pretend that eliminating marijuana traffic is like eliminating slavery or piracy, or eradicating smallpox or malaria.  The official federal government view is that everything possible has to be done to prevent everyone from ever using marijuana, even as a medicine.  But there is also an informal lore of marijuana use that is far more tolerant.  Many of the millions of cannabis users in this country not only disobey the drug laws but feel a principled lack of respect for them.  They do not conceal their bitter resentment of laws that render them criminals.  They believe that many people have been deceived by their government, and they have come to doubt that the "authorities" understand much about either the deleterious or the useful properties of this drug.  This undercurrent of ambivalence and resistance in public attitudes towards marijuana leaves room for the possibility of change, especially since the costs of prohibition are so high and rising. Because multifaceted marijuana is now here to stay as a very useful and safe medicine, as a superior recreational drug, and as an enhancer of a variety of human capacities, this more than 70-year-old destructive prohibition cannot endure much longer. It is reasonable to assume that had there never been a marijuana prohibition, smoked marijuana, because it is both more reliable and easier to titrate, would have displaced Tincture of Cannabis as the cannabinoid medicine of choice.  Without prohibition, marijuana would have become as easily accessible as aspirin.  It would have provided the first opportunity for herbal marijuana to compete with  pharmaceutical products and its success would have assured its place as an integral part of modern allopathic medicine.  However, can we now assume that the end of the prohibition against herbal marijuana, which must come sooner or later, will see it regain its rightful place in modern medicine?   Given  the enormous influence of contemporary big Pharma on the medical establishment and the government, this is not so clear.  It is not just a matter of big Pharma losing out on the enormous profits to be made with cannabis in its herbal form, but also, what it would lose from the diminished sales of many of its products which will have to compete with herbal marijuana.  Even the cannabinoid products that the pharmaceutical industry has and will continue to develop are unlikely to win many if not most clinical contests on a level playing field with cannabinopathic medicine's gold standard, herbal marijuana, for which, as a product of nature, there are no exclusive rights.. In the face of the ongoing prohibition cannabinopathic medicine will continue to grow and develop.  It will continue to collect data to help it discover new medicinal uses; to develop new strains to more effectively target particular symptoms and illnesses; to generate new modifications of herbal products to facilitate topical application, ingestion and smoking or inhaling; and it will continue to train people in the newest and best ways to use these products.  In states which have not legalized the use of cannabis as a medicine, all aspects of the practice of cannabinopathic medicine will continue to be subterranean. In the states which have already made it more or less legally available as a medicine (depending on the comprehensiveness of the list of symptoms and syndromes for which the state allows it to be used as a medicine) cannabinopathic practice continues to be only partially transparent.  Because it is unlikely that any state will ever include pre-menstrual syndrome or intractable hiccups, for example, as indications for which cannabis may be useful, patients suffering from these and many other disorders will have to continue to use cannabis covertly or wait until after the prohibition comes to an end as it recently has in Colorado and Washington.  This is consistent with my belief that it will be impossible to realize the full potential of this plant as a medicine, not to speak of the other ways in which it is useful, in the setting of this destructive prohibition.
 

California Medical Association Calls on Governor Brown to Urge for Marijuana's Reclassification

More than two weeks ago, with less fanfare than it deserved, the California Medical Association (CMA) voted to urge Governor Brown to petition the federal government to reclassify marijuana for medical use. Notably, the vote occurred two days ahead of oral arguments before a federal appeals court in a widely watched case concerning the reclassification of marijuana: Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration. With this latest resolution from the CMA, pressure continues to build on the federal government to design policy based on sound science and to treat medical marijuana like the public health issue it is.

On October 14th, the 141st annual CMA House of Delegates voted unanimously to approve Resolution 103-12, urging the Governor to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reschedule cannabis. The resolution was co-authored by Dr. Donald Abrams, Chief of Hematology-Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and an eminent cannabis researcher in his own right, and Dr. Larry Bedard, president of the Marin Medical Society and a physician who has practiced emergency medicine for more than 30 years.

Resolution 103-12 requests that:
California Governor Jerry Brown petition the DEA and the Administration to reschedule marijuana based on the science that shows medicinal marijuana has ‘accepted medical use.’

The CMA resolution also emphasized that:
[M]edical decisions should be based on science, not politics.

The CMA resolution comes as more than 70 medical professionals have co-signed an open letter calling for marijuana to be rescheduled from its current status as a dangerous drug with no medical value.

It’s not as if Governor Brown would be politically sticking out his neck, either. Within the last year, the governors of Colorado, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have all petitioned the DEA to reclassify marijuana for medical use. Given that the vast majority of Californians support medical marijuana, it would be politically prudent for Governor Brown to take this action. For all the harm that the Obama Administration has caused the medical marijuana community over the past few years -- incessant raids and prosecutions against legally compliant businesses -- it’s the least Governor Brown could do in favor of the state’s hundreds of thousands of patients who rely on the same dispensaries the federal government is shutting down.

According to its website:
CMA serves more than 35,000 members in all modes of practice and specialties representing the patients of California. CMA is dedicated to serving our member physicians through a comprehensive program of legislative, legal, regulatory, economic and social advocacy. … Our goal is to provide our members with the necessary support, so that they can surpass the challenges and continue to run successful medical practices.

Honoring Medical Cannabis Warriors

[caption id="attachment_3287" align="aligncenter" width="270"]
ASA v DEA plaintiffs (l-r) Michael Krawitz, Bill Britt, and Cathy Jordan receive the Courage Award from ASA.[/caption]

On Tuesday evening, October 16th, Americans for Safe Access celebrated our 10th anniversary - and patients' day in court - with an awards dinner honoring the brave warriors for medical cannabis access who have fought for all patients.

Executive Director Steph Sherer introduced the courageous champions, saying:
I am honored to share this evening with all of you. Over the years, ASA has been blessed with a truly dynamic staff, dedicated volunteers, and courageous members. I am truly grateful to have been fighting this fight alongside all of you. I would especially like to thank our awardees. Dan Rush, who is accepting the Movement Building Award on behalf of UFCW and Michael McGuffin, who is accepting the Patient Partnership Award on behalf of the American Herbal Products Association, have been instrumental in cultivating exciting new partnerships which I truly believe are the future of the medical cannabis movement. Presented with the Spirit Award is Jon Gettman, and presented with our Courage Awards are the plaintiffs in ASA vs DEA Mary Lynn Mathre, Al Byrne, Bill Britt, Catherine Jordan, Michael Krawitz, and Rick Steed. Each one of these individuals has served as an inspiration for the work that is done every day as well as to me personally.

The biographies of the plaintiffs, who were given our Courage Award, can be found here. The other awardees are:

Spirit Award: Jon B. Gettman is a marijuana reform activist, a leader of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, and a former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He has a PhD in public policy and regional economic development from George Mason University and is a longtime contributor to High Times magazine. Gettman filed a petition in 1995 to remove cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act that was eventually denied. A second petition was filed in 2002, with the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, that remains under review by the Department of Health and Human Services. Gettman frequently publishes on the marijuana industry and teaches public administration at Shepherd University in West Virginia.

Patient Partnership Award: Michael McGuffin is a leading expert on dietary supplement regulation. He has been published in scholarly and scientific journals, including the Food and Drug Law Journal and Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, and also wrote the highly-lauded publication AHPA's Annotated Final Rule on Dietary Supplement cGMP (2007). Additionally, Mr. McGuffin served as Managing Editor of AHPA's Botanical Safety Handbook (1997) and Herbs of Commerce, 2nd edition (2000). He speaks frequently on dietary supplement regulation in the U.S. and abroad. Michael McGuffin was honored in 2010 for over 20 years of dedicated service, having served as the President of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) since 1999 and a member of the Board of Trustee's for 10 years prior. Mr. McGuffin has represented the herbal industry at state and federal hearings on herbal regulatory issues. He has served as a member of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee Working Group on Good Manufacturing Practices for Dietary Supplements (1998-99), the FDA's Food Advisory Committee's Dietary Supplements Subcommittee (2003-5) and currently serves on California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Analysis Food Warning Workgroup and the Advisory Board of the USC School of Pharmacy Regulatory Science Master's Degree Program. He also serves on the boards of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and United Plant Savers.

Movement Building Award: Dan Rush is the National Director for the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). UFCW is North America's Neighborhood Union with 1.3 million members standing together to improve the lives and livelihoods of workers, families, and communities. Mr. Rush is a medical cannabis industry pioneer and authority. He is the spokesperson for the Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana and the board secretary of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR). In 2010 he established UFCW5's Cannabis Division and organized the very first union members in the medical cannabis industry."UFCW is the union of retail, food processing and agricultural workers, and the medical cannabis industry is a retail, food pro- cessing and agricultural industry", says Mr. Rush. "Our union is bringing dignity, legitimacy, stability, standards and strength to both workers and employers. We advocate for a regu- lated industry that creates good jobs and significant tax revenue for our communities." Dan is a native of Oakland California. He is a Central Committee Delegate of the California Democratic Party and an expert on statewide ballot initiatives. He coordinates an annual National Labor-Community Awards in San Francisco, which is the largest event of its kind in the United States.

Jonathan Bair is ASA's Social Media Director.

DC Circuit Orders Supplemental Briefing in Landmark Federal Medical Marijuana Case



 

 

 

 

 

 

Just hours after the U.S. Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in the federal landmark case Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration, the court ordered supplemental briefing on the issue of “standing.” In a rare move for a case that has been covered by the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, and others, the request for additional briefing indicates that the court is taking the issue of medical marijuana very seriously.

Yesterday’s order asks the petitioners to provide the court with details about how plaintiff Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran, sustained harm as a result of the federal government’s refusal to recognize the therapeutic value of marijuana. During yesterday’s oral arguments, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) Chief Counsel Joe Elford argued that Krawitz had been denied medical services and treatment from Veterans Administration physicians because of his status as a medical marijuana patient.

Specifically, the court ordered ASA to file a brief not to exceed five pages in order to “clarify and amplify the assertions made [by] Michael Krawitz regarding his individual standing,” and “more fully explain precisely the nature of the injury that gives him standing.” The brief is due by Monday.

If ASA can reasonably show that Krawitz has been harmed by a federal policy that holds marijuana has no medical value, the country’s largest medical marijuana advocacy group may also get the court to rule on the merits of the case -- whether the scientific evidence of medical efficacy is ample enough to reclassify marijuana from its current status as a Schedule I substance.

We remain hopeful that the science on medical marijuana will prevail over politics in order to overcome the decades-long effort by the federal government to keep marijuana out of the reach of millions of Americans who would benefit from its use.

Appeals Court hears case on medical value of marijuana

This morning, the federal Appeals Court for the DC Circuit heard an appeal in the case called Americans for Safe Access v Drug Enforcement Administration. The case is an appeal of the DEA's rejection of a petition filed in 2002 seeking to change the placement of marijuana as a Schedule I drug per the Controlled Substances Act. Based on the scientific evidence, ASA and our fellow plaintiffs feel that it is simply untrue that cannabis is a drug with a "high potential for abuse" and "without accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." The hearing today offered a glimpse at the Court's approach to this topic.

In front of a packed courtroom in Washington, the three-judge panel questioned ASA's Chief Counsel Joe Elford and a federal lawyer about the merits of the scientific case, and the crucial legal issue of "standing." Standing is a legal concept that restricts the right to sue to injured parties - people who are directly hurt by what they are fighting, and can get relief from a legal judgement. The issue of standing has been the reason why two prior appeals of the DEA's classification of marijuana were rejected. In the past, patients have not been part of lawsuits against the Controlled Substances Act. The three judges were Merrick Garland, Karen Henderson, and Harry Edwards.

ASA's Chief Counsel Joe Elford opened his appeal by arguing that the federal "Department of Health and Human Services plays a game of gotcha" by tightly controlling research access to cannabis and then claiming that there is not enough compelling research to justify reconsidering it as Schedule I. The Drug Enforcement Administration erred by determing that cannabis has a high potential for abuse when its findings determine its abuse and harm potential is less than other substances in less-controlled schedules, such as cocaine.

Elford opened his arguments with the issue of standing. He pointed to the affidavit of plaintiff Michael Krawitz, a veteran denied access to Veterans Administration services because of his medically necessary use of marijuana. The Veterans Administrastion's harmful policy is based on marijuana's status as a Schedule I substance. He also spoke of the many members of Americans for Safe Access, who are fearful of the consequences of cultivating their own cannabis for their medical needs, and that a medical necessity defense in court could be allowed if marijuana were not in Schedule I.

Elford then turned to the issue of the merits of the DEA's position on marijuana's medical value, to prove their position was "arbitrary and capricious" and therefore impermissible. The contention that there is not a complete consensus was argued to be an unreasonable interpretation of the regulatory standard, and that many of HHS's standards are inapplicable to an organic substance. Significantly, the lack of access to marijuana for medical research is a consequence of the scheduling, yet the lack of suitable research is cited by the DEA as a reason for maintaining the schedule. Despite this lack of research access, ASA cited a growing body of high-quality scientific and medical research into the benefits of marijuana.

Judge Garland asked Elford if he was arguing that marijuana in fact meets HHS's standard for studies. ASA's counsel cited over 200 studies and argued that a circular standard is impossible to meet. He also said that, given that the schedule is relative, the DEA is ignoring even its own studies showing that marijuana has merely a "mild" potential for abuse.

Joe Elford concluded by arguing that Schedule I was an inappropriate classification of marijuana and it caused harm to patients and prevented meaningful medical research. Rescheduling marijuana would allow for a reasonable policy solution for suffering patients and uphold the intent of the Controlled Substances Act.

Judge Edwards asked about the standing of Mr. Krawitz, and his access to medical marijuana. The judges asked about access in medical states and noted that marijuana would not be legal just because it were rescheduled.

Federal counsel Lena Watkins then presented her position against appealing the DEA's decision to continue cannabis in Schedule I. She noted that state legislatures or popular votes do not determine accepted medical use. She said that research is inadequate and has not progressed, and argued that the government does provide access for research.  Turning to the abuse potential, Watkins said, "marijuana is the most widely abused drug in America," and dependency is a factor in making that assessment.

The judges questioned the level of access provided for research, and Watkins said that fifteen studies of a specific federal "quality" metric have been allowed. Pressed to explain why these studies haven't persuaded the DEA that marijuana has medical benefits, she said, "we don't have the final results yet." To many in the audience, the circular nature of the government's position on the science of marijuana was clear. The judges then invited Elford to give a rebuttal.

Focusing on rebutting the government's claims about research, Elford argued that there has been adequate study and even more since this case was filed in 2002, and noted that he would like to admit additional evidence to the case. Summarizing by turning the government's "no substantial evidence" argument on its head, Elford said that both sides agree more research needs to be done and that research can only happen if marijuana is released from Schedule I. Requiring the DEA to make scientific determinations on a new schedule would lead to better policy and more relief for suffering patients.

The patients spoke out at a well-attended press conference after the hearing, and Americans for Safe Access is proud to have given patients a day in court. Many observers felt the judges were willing to consider the argument of Michael Krawitz's direct harm from the Controlled Substances Act, and this issue of "standing" has been the Achilles heel of past lawsuits against Schedule I. However, Judge Garland asked at one point, "Don't we have to defer to the agency? We're not scientists. They are."

We'll find out whether the judges felt the DEA's science is adequate, or if patients can sue for a medical necessity defense against harsh marijuana laws, when the judges rule. We don't expect it for a few months. This opportunity is thanks to the brave plaintiffs who took on the federal government on behalf of many others.

Jonathan Bair is ASA's Social Media Director. Recordings of any kind were not allowed in the courtroom.

Meet the Plaintiffs of ASA v DEA

Tomorrow morning, the United States Court of Appeals in Washington DC will hear oral arguments in the landmark case, Americans for Safe Access v Drug Enforcement Administration. The case argues that the Drug Enforcement Administration acted irrationally in ruling that cannabis belongs in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The plaintiffs argue that this scheduling of marijuana has harmed them physically and financially. Below are the courageous patients and caregivers who have taken on the federal government in this important case.

William "Bill" Britt is a 52-year-old resident of Long Beach, California, who developed polio as a child, which caused him to have scoliosis, a fused left ankle, shortened left leg, and bone degeneration in his left hip. Mr. Britt also suffers from epilepsy, depression and insomnia, and uses marijuana to treat chronic pain in his leg, back, and hip. Marijuana has reduced Mr. Britt's seizures and depression, and helps him sleep. Although Mr. Britt has taken prescription medication such as Marinol, Robaxin, Soma, and Xanax, none has proven as effective as marijuana. Read Mr. Britt's post about why he is suing for safe access.

Al Byrne is co-founder and Secretary-Treasurer of Patients Out of Time, a national non-profit devoted to educating health care professionals and the general public about the therapeutic uses of marijuana. He works with five of the seven remaining federally supplied Cannabis patients, who are enrolled in the Compassionate Individual New Drug (IND) Program. As the son of a cancer patient who used Cannabis in 1966 to relieve the negative aspects of cancer chemotherapy, he has maintained activism in reforming Cannabis laws since that time. He served on the Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) from 1989 to 1994 acting as Managing Director of the organization during 1991 and 1992 and as the National Secretary 1992 to 1994. Mr. Byrne is the United States representative of patient advocacy for the European based International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines (IACM). He sits on various Boards of Cannabis orientated organizations. He has moderated a number of debates and confer- ences about Cannabis reforms including the ongoing clinical conference series of Patients Out of Time. He is a consultant to several state representatives actively engaged in writing legislation to reform Cannabis prohibition.

Catherine Jordan is a medical marijuana patient. When she turned 36, she was diagnosed with ALS and given 3-5 years to live. Catherine was told she would choke or drown in her own fluids or suffocate from the total collapse of her lungs and chest muscles. By 1989, the disease had devastated her body. While vacationing in Florida, Cathy tried a strain of cannabis called Myakka Gold. She went back home to Delaware and attempted to explain this to her neurologist, who immediately suggested she be institutionalized because she wasn't handling the bad news of her health well. After assuring him she would never speak of it again, he relented. Now she has seen 30 Neurologist, and been to 4 Universities. Not one doctor has suggested she stop smoking cannabis, though she has been warned that her use of cannabis would prevent her from getting a cure if one is found. In 2004, she met with doctors working on the theory that cannabis would slow the progression of ALS. While meeting with the doctors she realized she was living proof of their research. She soon contacted Gov. Jeb Bush that this issue, who said this was a federal matter that he had no control. So with the cards stacked against her, she committed herself to activism. Currently she is the president of FL CAN.

Michael Krawitz is a 49-year-old resident of Elliston, Virginia, who suffered an automobile accident in 1984 while serving in the United States Air Force. Mr. Krawitz has been rated by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as being totally and permanently disabled. Mr. Krawitz uses marijuana to treat chronic pain and trauma associated with his accident. He also uses marijuana to treat central serous retinopathy. However, because of Mr. Krawitz's medical marijuana use, he has been denied pain treatment by the VA. Read Mr. Krawitz's post about why he is suing for safe access.

Mary Lynn Mathre received her BSN from the College of St. Teresa and began her nursing career in the US Navy Nurse Corps serving at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia and at the Naval Hospital in Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. In 1985 she earned her MSN at Case Western Reserve University and began teaching at the University Of Virginia School Of Nursing. In 1987, she changed her specialty to addictions nursing and returned to clinical practice. She served as the charge nurse of an inpatient addictions treatment program and later as the addictions consultant for the UVA Health System. She then worked as the Executive Director of a private opioid treatment center and now works independently as an addictions consultant. Ms. Mathre's focus on medicinal cannabis began in 1985 with the completion of her graduate thesis, Disclosure of Marijuana Use to Health Care Professionals. Ms.Mathre served as the Director of NORML's Council on Marijuana & Health from 1986 - 1992 and on NORML's Board of Directors from 1988 - 94. Ms. Mathre is also a co-founder and President of Patients Out of Time. Ms. Mathre has written resolutions for several professional organizations in support of patient access to medical marijuana, including those of the Virginia Nurses Society on Addictions, the Virginia Nurses Association, the National Nurses Society on Addictions, and the American Public Health Association.

Steph Sherer is a resident of Washington, D.C. and the founder and Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA). In April of 2000, Ms. Sherer suffered a physical attack that has caused her to suffer from a condition that produced inflammation, muscle spasms, pain throughout her body, and decreased mobility in her neck. Because of multiple pain medications she was prescribed, Ms. Sherer suffered kidney damage. After her doctor recommended medical marijuana, Ms. Sherer successfully reduced her inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain. This prompted Ms. Sherer to found ASA in April of 2002 to share what she learned about the therapeutic value of marijuana and to change public policy.

Americans for Safe Access is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. ASA works to overcome political and legal barriers by creating policies that improve access to medical cannabis for patients and researchers by engaging a multifaceted strategy that incorporates public education, impact litigation, grassroots development and advocacy, media campaigns, and direct support services. The scheduling of cannabis as "without accepted medical use" forces ASA to spend its organizational resources fighting for patients.

Jonathan Bair is ASA's Social Media Director.

Cannabis, the Gateway Herb: A Doctor Responds

David Sack in his recent HuffPo post entitled "Marijuana: The New Snake Oil" challenges the status of medical marijuana, an increasingly popular alternative treatment, as "good medicine." This question is particularly relevant because the Washington DC federal Court of Appeals will soon hear a lawsuit disputing the status of marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, brought by Americans for Safe Access, a national member-based organizaton advocating for medical cannabis access and research. I am a doctor and a board member of the ASA Foundation, and I'm proud to present a medical professionals' perspectives to the cause.

Dr. Sack’s anti-marijuana platform is built on the foundation of addiction psychiatry, practiced through the lens of pharmaceutical medicine, resting primarily on a characterization of the FDA approval process as a gold standard of medical evaluation. This same contention, that without FDA approval marijuana cannot have medical value, has been repeated as medical cannabis laws are decided by voters. However, the FDA process is not an infallible one, and it is important to point out about half of FDA approved drugs have been subject to recall or black box warnings. There is no need to belabor this point, but just bear in mind: Accutane, Serzone, Clozapine Pradaxa, Reglan, Yasmin, Chantix, Celebrex and Rosiglitozone, to name a few. The FDA process is not perfect, and the "gold standard" randomized controlled clinical trial is not a one-size-fits-all process: it was particularly designed for single molecule synthetic compounds. As a clinical study tool, it has its limitations, especially where integrative medicine and herbal supplements are concerned.

As Dr. Sack and other cannabis opponents point out, it is truly unfortunate that there is a dearth of clinical trials assessing the efficacy of a variety of cannabis products for a wide array of diagnoses. We can thank our Federal government for this, because research is strictly limited. However, what little research has been conducted demonstrates an utter lack of detrimental health impacts, including no mechanism for an “overdose” bodily response, which can be triggered by virtually all other drugs. In the last decade or so, the American Medical Association, the National Nurses Association, the National College of Physicians, and even the federally-run National Health Institute have all recommended that cannabis be removed from Schedule I and become available as part of treatment regimes.

Despite Dr. Sack’s firmly-worded assertions, we have much to learn about what predisposes individuals to addictive behavior. In the mean time, there is a massive uncontrolled clinical trial being conducted by millions of Americans who are using Cannabis to treat quite a wide range of symptoms and diagnoses. With an explosiong of marijuana use both recreational and medical since the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1969, mental illness and other supposed ills of marijuana use have not materialized in the general population.

Regardless of what status cannabis has with the FDA, it behooves us as physicians to be interested in and informed about what our patients are using as medicine. As for meeting FDA criteria, a recent study proposed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies on smoked and/or vaporized marijuana for symptoms of PTSD in veterans of war, was approved by the FDA in April of 2001, but hindered by the National Institute on Drugs of Abuse. The National Cancer Institute has published a comprehensive Physician Data Query (PDQ) and The Institute of Medicine both have publications where the science base of Cannabis has been assessed. And unlike drugs that go through the FDA approval process, cannabis had been part of the American pharmacopoeia long before the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Federal hindering of new scientific studies of marijuana does not erase millenia of human cultural experience with the medical value of this plant.

Though some physicians are uncomfortable with this fact, we are in an era of a revival of natural approaches to health. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2008 estimated that 40% of adults in the US are using some form of complementary alternative care, spending 33.9 billion out-of-pocket dollars. Many of the tools and herbs they access have been practiced and used literally for centuries (ten centuries for cannabis), and what Dr. Sacks characterizes as "anecdotal" evidence is the safety data.

There are some in the medical community who question the reliability of the current FDA approval system (especially where complex plant mixtures are concerned), work with their patients toward optimal whole health, and are not threatened by new paradigms of healthcare. The ultimate yardstick under federal law is whether or not a substance has "accepted medical use in the United States." ASA will be challenging the DEA's assertion that marijuana has not medical value in court on October 16th, and we've created a sign-on letter for prescribing medical professionals to express their agreement. Cannabis seems to be opening the door to what some may consider a "Pandora's Box", and other simply see as Robert Frost saw, the gate to a road "less traveled by".

Michelle Sexton, N.D., is an Assistant Research Scientist at Bastyr University Research Institute, and a member of the ASA Foundation Board.

Medical Prescribers Launch National Letter for Medical Cannabis

After this blog was posted, prescribing medical professionals have signed a letter acknowledging that cannabis has medical use and should be rescheduled.

Most would agree with the premise that medical decisions regarding the appropriateness of a treatments are best left to doctors and other medicine prescribers in conjunction with patients. When it comes to herbal marijuana or cannabis, Congress and federal regulatory authorities have taken it upon themselves to judge across the board whether this substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, taking little or no input from clinicians who are responsible for actually providing treatments in this country.

Responding to the fact that nothing has been done to organize individual medical professionals to clearly state with one voice to the federal regulatory authorities that there are indeed currently accepted medical uses for cannabis (aka herbal marijuana) in the United States today, the medical prescribers on the board of ASA have started a sign-on letter to give the opportunity for their colleagues to stand and be counted. On Friday August 31st, in collaboration with fellow ASA board and staff, an open national-sign on letter was launched. This sign-on letter is in advance of the federal DC Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on October 16 when judges will consider questions regarding the appropriate classification of marijuana or cannabis in the drug scheduling framework.

Invited signatories to the letter are licensed physicians, physician assistants, and advanced registered nurse practioners - professions with prescribing privileges - who recognize that safe, currently accepted medical uses in treatment for marijuana presently exist in the United States. The letter cites national medical professional consensus statements which signal that the current Schedule I status of cannabis is suspect.

Maintaining the Schedule I status for marijuana in federal law requires drug regulatory authorities to assert and maintain that no accepted medical use in treatment in the US currently exists for marijuana. To do so in the face of the accumulated evidence requires strained and ill-conceived arguments. In their July 2011 decision rejecting ASA’s petition to reschedule marijuana (the appeal of which is the subject of the upcoming hearing), the DEA included the required scientific assessment from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which had been prepared 5 years prior. Writing on December 6, 2006, HHS found that there were no "NDA-quality [new drug application] studies that have assessed…efficacy and…safety…of marijuana for any medical condition." They went on to say that "at this time, it is clear that there is not a consensus of medical opinion concerning medical applications of marijuana," that "a material conflict of opinion among experts precludes a finding that marijuana has been accepted by qualified experts", and finally that there is no opportunity for "adequate scientific scrutiny" of the existing scientific evidence as the data were "only in summarized form, such as a paper published in the medical literature, rather than in a raw data format."

It is without merit to assume that the only way that a drug or substance can be judged to have accepted medical use is through the completion of "NDA-quality studies," which is another way of saying "Phase III" randomized controlled trials. There are many medically accepted uses of drugs for indications that have not undergone Phase III level testing. For example, take the use of platelet-rich plasma (PrP) injections for the treatment of Achillies tendonitis or tennis elbow. While it is being prescribed by a great number of physicians and being reimbursed by insurance companies, there are no completed Phase III "NDA-quality" studies that have been done to evaluate this medical application. However, it would be wrong to say that that PrP has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States – just ask the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or other medical specialty societies who hold, sponsor, or advertise training workshops on PrP. Clearly, medical acceptance for treatments depends on presently accepted clinical practices by the medical community. Given that the two largest physicians groups in the United States, the AMA and the ACP, have both come on record saying that the Schedule I status of marijuana needs to be reviewed and that, according to the ACP, such a review would likely lead to reclassification of the drug, it is not accurate to say that there is not a consensus medical expert opinion about the medical utility of marijuana. While it is true that these positions of medical associations were formally taken after the 2006 position prepared by the HHS, they were available at the time the DEA issued its ruling.

In fact, many more patients have been involved in randomized-controlled clinical studies involving cannabis and cannabis-based medicinal extracts than many other drugs. While only a few of these studies rise to the level of Phase III, that does not mean that a strong evidence base is lacking (nearly all controlled clinical trials of cannabis done in the United States have been positive). One pharmaceutical company in England, GW Pharmaceuticals, has conducted large Phase III studies with a cannabis-based medicinal extract produced directly from liquid CO2 extraction of herbal cannabis. While the company would like to contend that studies related to this extract don’t apply to marijuana, as they indicated in a letter from their lawyer to HHS, it is hard to see how they do not apply to marijuana given that the long-standing enforced definition of "marihuana" in federal law since 1937 has been "all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds, or resins." Certainly the DEA has recently created a separate classification for cannabis extracts in their Scheduling schema, but it is clear that this is little more than pharmacolegal jujitsu to somehow create a privileged parsing of "marijuana extracts" from "marijuana" for the benefit of drug pipelines.

HHS’s claim that "raw data" is needed and that published papers in the medical literature will not do is bizarre and unusual. Medical education, research, and evidence-based consensus-statement writing relies on the same pool of data with findings commonly presented in journal articles. Not having it all together in "one big paper" is really no reason to deny judgment about accepted medical use of marijuana.

The prescribers signing on to the letter are able to judge based on their expertise developed out of clinical experience, study, and collegial discussions, that marijuana or cannabis has an accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. With likely over 10,000 physicians authorizing patients to used cannabis in medical marijuana programs, which have been around for 16 years, and with the string of positive outcome clinical trials of cannabis and cannabis extracts, there is more than enough medical experience and evidence available to recognize that a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States exists for marijuana. If strong scientific evidence and clinical professional opinions count for anything in policy, then it is time to re-schedule/de-schedule marijuana.

Sunil Aggarwal, M.D., Ph.D., is an Americans for Safe Access Foundation Board Member

Cannabis News Around the Nation

Two weeks of medical cannabis news in review.
  • Congresswoman Introduces Bill to Protect Landlords of Compliant Medical Marijuana Businesses - ASA PR
  • Michigan court rules localities cannot use federal law as an excuse for violating state laws protecting medical cannabis patients - The Detroit News
  • Case on Benefits of Marijuana Heads to Court - Huffington Post
  • LA Councilman Bill Rosendahl comes out at as a medical cannabis patient - LA Times
  • Detailed Rules for Medical Marijuana Proposed in Maine - Kennebec Journal
  • Pharmacy Shutdown Hoax Revealed - San Diego ASA
  • Medical Marijuana Advocates Mourn Pot Club Closures with Mock Funeral - SF Weekly
  • Arizona prosecutors urge Governor Jan Brewer to end the medical marijuana program, citing threats from federal prosecutors. The Governor declined to intervene - Arizona Republic
Jonathan Bair is ASA's Social Media Director.

Medical cannabis researcher explains recent scientific review

The article "Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke" by Grant, Atkinson, Gouaux, and Wilsey published this month in Bentham Science's 5-year-old, peer-reviewed, National Library of Medicine-indexed and internationally edited Open Neurology Journal represents a major milestone in the consolidation of knowledge and regularizing of clinical practice with regards to the medicinal use of cannabis.

The authors, well-established faculty members or associates at leading American academic medical centers, have yet again reviewed the gold-standard clinical trials-based evidence for medical uses of cannabis and related cannabinoids and have found:

  1. that it is inaccurate to say that cannabis lacks medical utility or that information on its safety is lacking

  2. that judgments on relative benefits and risks of cannabis and cannabinoids as medicines need to be viewed within the broader context of risk-benefit of other standard agents as well, many of which are associated with more serious adverse events, and

  3. that enough information and clinical experience exists that an algorithm can be constructed to guide decision-making for physicians who may be considering recommending medicinal cannabis to patients with neuropathic pain, which the authors offer.


The authors conclude that "it will be useful if marijuana and its constituents can be prescribed, dispensed, and regulated in a manner similar to other medications that have psychotropic effects and some abuse potential" and state that marijuana's Schedule I classification is scientifically untenable and the greatest barrier to forward movement in this area of medicine and medical science. This conclusion is made all the more noteworthy given that the article's first, second, and fourth authors disclose at the end of the manuscript that they have served as consultants and received financial support from major pharmaceutical companies.

Americans for Safe Access is part of a lawsuit challenging the DEA’s scheduling of marijuana as without any currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Download our lawsuit at http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/CRC_Appeal.pdf

Sunil Aggarwal, M.D., Ph.D., PGY-3, is a Housestaff Physician at NYU Medical Center and conducts research on the medical geography of cannabis.