Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Federal Government’s Medical Marijuana Program

According to the U.S. government, marijuana currently has no accepted medical use in the U.S. If you visit the DEA’s web site, you will find numerous references to that effect. And if you read what the DEA tells you (and don’t check out their references too carefully), it would appear to be true. Obviously, they fail to mention the dozen states that currently accept the medical use of marijuana. After all, this is the federal government, and what the states do is not relevant. When they say “no,” as in “no accepted medical use,” they mean it in a federal, legal, legislative sort of way, clearly not in the way that you or I would mean it. But one little fact that never seems to get mentioned with respect to accepted medical use of marijuana is that the U.S. government currently has a medical marijuana program of its very own.

What, you didn’t know that the U.S. government has a medical marijuana program? It’s true. And notice I said “has,” not “had.” The Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) Study program began in 1978 in response to a lawsuit brought against the FDA, DEA, and other federal agencies. The case, Randall v. U.S., sought to prevent the government from denying a patient legal medical marijuana that had been found by a federal judge in a previous case (U.S. v. Randall) to be a medical necessity. The program was originally intended to provide patients with legal marijuana and other non-FDA-approved drugs. Eventually AIDS was added to the list of marijuana-responsive ailments, and the program expanded in the 1980s. At that point, the number of patients trying to join the program got a little too large for the government’s comfort, and so the Bush administration closed it down in 1991. There were never more than 30 active patients in the program. When it was shut down, the current, active patients were grandfathered in and continued to receive their medicine legally. Today there are still seven surviving members who receive marijuana from the federal government under the IND program. The other thousands of medical marijuana users in the U.S. are subject to arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment.

So I guess that begs the question, what exactly does the phrase “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” mean? And it is a very important phrase indeed, since it is one of the three criteria used to classify a drug as a Schedule I substance. To me, being a native English speaker and not a lawyer, “no” means “no.” And I would consider the 12 states that accept marijuana as a medical treatment to be “in the United States.” It therefore is quite obvious, to me anyway, that marijuana does have accepted medical uses, both at the federal and state level. So perhaps someone could explain to me how marijuana continues to be a Schedule I substance. Some might point out that the federal government ended its program 17 years ago because they discovered that marijuana should not be used medicinally after all. OK. But then why let those seven people continue to receive their medicine? If it has no medicinal value and in reality is causing those people grave harm, then why not cut them off when the program ended? After all, isn’t the war on drugs all about protecting people from themselves? You can’t have it both ways (unless of course you are the U.S. government).

But there’s another issue that the federal government’s medical marijuana program raises that may be of even greater importance in the long run. We have a population of federally-sanctioned medical marijuana users that have been taking their medication for 17 years or more. Talk about a great research opportunity. Why aren’t these people being studied? (Although they are willing, none have been involved in any medical marijuana research studies.) Although the sample is small, it is a rare population of patients that could have been participating in a longitudinal study that might have provided valuable information about the true potential for medical marijuana. But I think you know the answer to this question as well as I do. The war on drugs is in no way based on facts. Actual scientific knowledge of the medical value of marijuana would only confuse the issue. And that brings us back to the heart of the matter—what kind of message would legalizing a substance that could potentially help thousands, if not millions, of sick people send to our children?

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