Thursday, December 27, 2001
Voters in California and Arizona touched off a national debate five years ago, when they approved amendments to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes; to relieve patients of pain and suffering. In reaction, the federal government took steps to prevent doctors in those states from prescribing marijuana as a pain-controller and cracked down on "medical pot clubs" in California.
But that probably won't prevent medical marijuana initiatives from taking root in other states.
The official position of the National Institutes of Health is that there is little evidence to show that marijuana really has value as medicine. But that bottom line comes with a qualification; to wit, there really aren't a lot of studies out there to either prove or disprove the contention that smoking marijuana can be faster and more effective than many prescription medicines in easing the pain of patients suffering from cancer, AIDS or a wide range of other diseases. Most of the evidence is anecdotal.
In fact, there have been virtually no federally sanctioned studies on the subject since the early 1980s. Because the federal government controls all of the legally grown marijuana in America, and because a number of federal agencies must sign off on such studies, researchers have not exactly been aggressive in seeking out authorization.
But that may be changing. The Drug Enforcement Administration has recently approved two medical marijuana studies and is in the process of sanctioning a third. All three will be conducted by universities in California. Two of the studies will try to determine if smoking marijuana can effectively relieve pain in multiple sclerosis patients, while a third will look at the drug's efficacy in treating a condition common to HIV patients that causes severe pain in the hands and feet.
"This is not much yet, but it is a recognition by the federal government that it cannot prevent all work from going forward," Paul Armentano, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the New York Times recently.
It's clear that the debate over the use of medical marijuana isn't going to go away. Advocacy groups like NORMAL will continue to support citizens initiatives. And if California and Arizona results are any example, voters appear to be sympathetic to the idea of allowing marijuana use for medical purposes. For their part, officials who take a hard line against drugs cannot simply continue to argue in dogmatic fashion that marijuana has no medical value. In the absence of scientific evidence one way or another, such arguments will ultimately lose credibility.
In short, ignorance is not bliss in regard to the issue of medical marijuana. The more researchers learn about the potential medicinal value of marijuana, the better. Whether its made by citizen initiative or via the legislative process, public health policy should not fashioned without benefit of all the factual evidence that can be mustered.
Critics say the dearth of research on the medicinal properties of marijuana over the past two decades has been the result of a "de facto" ban on marijuana studies. Whether that's true or not, it is appropriate to move forward with appropriate studies.