More MS news articles for March 1999

Remove the roadblocks to medicinal marijuana

Turn away from propaganda. Drop the nonsense about marijuana being medically useless.

When Californians legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996, national drug policy director Barry McCaffrey sneered at the notion that smoking a joint could help people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. He told the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine: Show me the evidence.

Wednesday, the institute released its report, "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science." (Go to or call 1-800-624-6242.) It concludes that medicinal Just Go marijuana advocates aren't just blowing smoke.

Scientific data shows that the active ingredients in marijuana, known as cannabinoids, may relieve pain, control nausea and vomiting and stimulate appetite.

"The psychological effects of cannabinoids NewsHound may contribute to their potential therapeutic value." (Getting high can make the patient feel better.)

"Except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications."

There is "no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs." The first "gateway" to drug abuse is underage use of tobacco and alcohol. In addition, "there is no evidence that approving the medical use of marijuana would increase its use among the general population, particularly if marijuana were regulated as closely as other medications with the potential to be abused."

McCaffrey is stressing the report's anti-herb message: "The future of cannabinoid drugs lies not in smoked marijuana but in chemically defined (cannabinoid) drugs."

Compounds produced in the lab "are preferable to plant products because they deliver a consistent dose and are made under controlled conditions," the report concludes.

The ideal would be smokeless "cannabinoid delivery systems" that offer smoking's rapid effect without long-term risks. "Something like an inhaler would deliver precise doses without the health problems associated with smoking," said University of Michigan researcher Stanley Watson, co-principal investigator of the Institute of Medicine study.

But patients shouldn't have to wait years for an inhaler. In addition to clinical trials, the report recommends allowing short-term use of smoked marijuana for patients who are terminally ill or have debilitating symptoms that don't respond to other medications.

"We are delighted that science is the basis of the discussion of this issue, as it must be," said the press release from the drug czar's office.

The delighted czar should now recommend moving marijuana in the federal regulatory scheme from Schedule I (high risk of abuse, no known medical benefits) to Schedule II (high risk of abuse, some medical use), which would let doctors prescribe marijuana under strict controls, as they do cocaine and morphine. Schedule III, for less dangerous controlled drugs, would be the best fit but that's too much delight for one czar.

Politics has trumped science up till now.

Last fall, the House voted 310-93 for a resolution declaring marijuana a dangerous, medically useless drug.

The Clinton administration opposes reclassification. As the president who smoked marijuana, but never inhaled, Clinton would rather be stupid than soft on drugs.

The safe stand is to call for more studies, and then ignore the results. So far, federal agencies are authorizing clinical trials on the risks of marijuana, but denying approval for studies on the potential benefits. That means researchers can't get legal marijuana grown on the government's research farm. If they try to proceed with private financing and grow-your-own marijuana, they risk arrest.

If marijuana were a Schedule II drug, doctors could recommend it under California's medicinal marijuana law without fear of reprisals, says Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

When Dan Lungren was attorney general, he worked with the feds to threaten doctors and close cannabis clubs, driving patients to the black market.

Lockyer voted for Proposition 215, saying that he'd seen his mother and sister die of leukemia.

He's named a task force headed by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, and Santa Clara County District Attorney George Kennedy, which is looking for ways to solve critical problems with the law: How can marijuana be grown, transported and distributed to genuinely sick patients? Who verifies patients' legitimacy? Who decides how much marijuana is enough?

"We're optimistic we can reach consensus," says Rand Martin, Vasconcellos' aide. "The question is whether it will make any difference with the feds."

If federal regulators keep marijuana in Schedule I, denying doctors the right to prescribe it under any conditions, we'll have that answer.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. Her column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. You may reach her at 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, CA 95190, by fax at 408-271-3792, or e-mail to .

©1999 Mercury Center.