Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Grounds for Dismissal?

You may recall me talking about our Drug Czar and his role in keeping illegal drugs illegal. Pretty sleazy if you ask me, this whole thing about him stifling research and opposing all legalization efforts. But at least he’s doing his job. And, like it or not, we taxpayers are getting our money’s worth out of him. Which is more than can be said about a lot of other civil servants

Just to refresh your memory, Mr. Kerlikowske recently told some folks in Fresno, CA that “Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit.” He also included the standard required statement, “Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.” He’s made these very same statements in public on other occasion in recent months as well. Fair enough. The guy’s just saying what he is required to say, being the good puppet. I may not agree with his message, but when someone is paying you to do a job, I believe you should do that job to the best of your abilities. In this case, that would be lying, preferably with a straight face. And so far, our czar has been doing just that. Good job, Mr. Kerlikowske. Way to earn that paycheck.

Unfortunately, that was then, and this is now. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we find our beloved czar in Seattle for a roundtable discussion on drug policy. You would expect Mr. Kerlikowske to continue being the good puppet and repeat the standard message yet again. At least I would, since that’s what he’s being paid to do. But no. During an interview with local news our czar backpedalled on his previous statements, and said:

“I certainly said that legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary nor is it in mine. But the other question was in reference to smoked marijuana. And as we know, the FDA has not determined that smoked marijuana has a value, and this is clearly a medical question, and that's where I've been leaving it.” He continued his mixed message with, “Sometimes you make a mistake and you work very hard to correct it. That happens. I should’ve clearly said ‘smoked’ marijuana and then gone on to say that this is clearly a question that should be answered by the medical community.”

WHAT!?!?!?! What do you mean you were talking about “smoked” marijuana? What do you mean the issue of medical marijuana should be decided by the medical community? That’s not the way we do things here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Nosiree. Whether or not people have access to a medicine that improves the quality of their lives has nothing whatsoever to do with the medical community. Where have you been for the past 70 years, Mr. Kerlikowske? When it comes to marijuana, the opinion of the medical community, or any other community outside the Beltway, is irrelevant. If the medical community had anything to do with it, medical marijuana would have been legalized long ago. Or, at the very least, would have been extensively studied for the past 40 years. What could Mr. Kerlikowske have been thinking? What could possibly explain his very un-czar-like behavior? Could he have been self-medicating with an illegal substance?

Well, he did also say, “We had been hiking in 107 degree weather in the Sierra Nevadas...” OK, that explains it. He was suffering from heat stroke and was confused. But wait, that was in reference to his original statement that marijuana was dangerous and had no medical value. Now I’m the one that’s confused.

But one thing I’m not confused about is our Drug Czar’s blatant disregard for a Congressional mandate. He is required to oppose medical marijuana research and any other efforts toward making marijuana, and all other Schedule I drugs, legal in any way. That’s what he’s being paid to do. Seems to me if any other public servant so cavalierly disregarded the mandate of the people (i.e., Congress), they would probably be forced to resign. In shame. So what do you say Mr. Kerlikowske? After embarrassing yourself and your government so publicly, don’t you think it’s time you passed the torch to someone better suited to the job? I think Barry McCaffrey is available.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do We Really Need a Schedule I?

For those of you that don’t know, the Controlled Substances Act places all controlled substances into one of five categories, or schedules, with each schedule having its own set of criteria for inclusion. Schedule V is the least restrictive for the safest, least abused drugs, such as cough medicine. Schedule I, on the other hand, is the most restrictive and reserved for only the most dangerous drugs that have no medical use. Schedule I substances, which include heroin, LSD, and marijuana, are strictly forbidden under virtually all circumstances, including research. That’s not to say that absolutely no research is ever done with these substances. But it’s very limited and subject to the approval of the DEA. Marijuana, for example, is at this time legally available for research purposes from only one source, and then only in a very low-grade form. What that means is that even if someone were to get to the point of conducting the large-scale clinical trials necessary for FDA approval, enough of the drug would not be available.

So what I’d like to know is why we even need a Schedule I. What’s the point? From a control standpoint, substances in Schedule I are restricted only to those doing legitimate research. Others can easily acquire them from the black market. Substances in Schedules II through V are strictly controlled, but they are legally available for research or through prescription.

So it looks like the answer to my question is that the point of having a Schedule I is to restrict research, not unauthorized, recreational use. Whether or not anyone would actually admit to that being the reason, it is certainly the result. And restricting research of any kind is not the sort of thing a free society should do. The whole point of scientific research is to further human knowledge. That’s a good thing. Restricting the generation and flow of knowledge only serves to stifle a society.

Now I can certainly understand restricting, or at least strictly controlling, certain types of research. Obviously we can’t have high school kids trying to build nuclear devices in their garages. But medical research? I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many people that believe we shouldn’t do everything we can to find new medicines and new cures. Unless of course that medicine involves marijuana (or stem cells, but that’s another story). Of course those people are probably not doctors. They have no way of knowing what might be discovered if marijuana and other Schedule I substances were able to be freely studied. And of course there’s no way to convince those people otherwise because the research cannot be done.

And it’s not only research that suffers from there being a Schedule I. Substances that have been shown to be beneficial under certain circumstances cannot be prescribed by doctors if they are in Schedule I. And it’s not just marijuana. For example, heroin is one of the most effective pain killers known. Yet only its less effective relative morphine can be prescribed. LSD and other psychedelics have been shown to have some uses in psychotherapy, yet they cannot be prescribed either. While substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine are in Schedule II and can be used therapeutically. Seems like a pretty arbitrary distinction.

So the whole existence of a Schedule I seems pretty crazy to me. What’s crazy about it is the government telling the medical community what drugs they can and can’t prescribe. Any such policies should be determined by physicians based on science, not politicians based on politics. Even crazier is restricting medical research of any kind. Regardless of where a particular line of research might lead, it will at the very least generate new knowledge. And today, just as it has been throughout human history, knowledge is power.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Writing On The Wall

Just last week the National Institute on Drug Abuse (i.e., the federal government) published an RFP. That’s a “request for proposals” to you and me. Nothing unusual about that, as the government is always soliciting proposals for grants and government contracts. But what is unusual is the nature of this particular contract. Perhaps the title of the RFP will give you an idea of what I mean: Production, Analysis, & Distribution of Cannabis & Marijuana Cigarettes. Yes, that’s right. The federal government is looking for someone to grow marijuana for them.

But what, you might ask, about the University of Mississippi? Haven’t they been the sole supplier of all legal medical and research marijuana in this country for the past 40 years? And wasn’t it just a few short months ago that this very same federal government, after a protracted legal battle, declined a legitimate application from the University of Massachusetts to produce marijuana and other Schedule I drugs for research? And wasn’t it the DEA who, in spite of support from a number of Congressmen and a favorable ruling from their very own DEA Administrative Law Judge, ruled that ending the government’s sole-source monopoly on marijuana would lead to increased illicit use? And besides, claimed the DEA, the University of Mississippi provides all the (low-grade) marijuana that researchers in this country could ever want.

So what’s happened in the past 7 months to change things? Well, for starters, just a few days after the DEA’s decision was handed down, a new president was sworn in. But neither he nor his new attorney general reversed or overruled the DEA’s decision. I think it’s something bigger than just a new administration, although that certainly has a lot to do with it.

I think the people in our government are finally starting to see the writing on the wall. In the past few years a number of legitimate scientific papers have been published on the medical benefits of the various compounds found in marijuana. The science is getting pretty hard to deny, even for hard-core drug warriors. But helping cancer patients alleviate their nausea or stimulate their appetites is not enough to change these people’s minds. Not when there are plenty of other expensive alternatives provided by the pharmaceutical industry. What is starting to get their attention is the research focused on cannabis compounds as a cure for cancer. That’s right, a cure for cancer.

You see, I believe that within the next 5-10 years a real cure for cancer will be found. By “real” I mean one that doesn’t practically kill the patient to rid them of cancer. And I believe that cure will be based on compounds derived from marijuana. More importantly, that cure will come from somewhere other than the good ol’ U.S. of A. How embarrassed will we be when the world learns that we had a cure for cancer right under our very noses all this time while we did our best to prevent anyone from discovering it. Boy, will our government’s face be red. What are they going to say? Sorry? Our bad?

It’s true you know, CBD and other cannabinoids (the active compounds in marijuana) have been shown to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. Unlike current chemotherapy alternatives, which kill all cells indiscriminately, the only side effect of CBD treatment is a relaxed feeling. And here’s the kicker: almost all of this research is being done somewhere else. It’s yet one more area where our country is falling behind the rest of the world, medicine. How embarrassing indeed.

So I believe that not wanting to look stupid in the eyes of the world just may be responsible for the changing attitude of our government with respect to medical marijuana research. Not that looking stupid has ever stopped us before. But this is different. In most cases, like wars, right or wrong can be pretty subjective. But when it comes to suppressing research that might lead to a cure for cancer, there’s no two ways about it. That’s a bad thing. Oh well, at least it will give all those government propagandists something to do—spin it so it looks like our war on drugs really was a good thing, and show how smart we were by putting an end to it.

FYI, here are a few studies that have come out in the past few years that show promising results with respect to using cannabinoid compounds to treat cancer. Notice where most of this research has been done?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Who’s The Boss?

All this talk recently about and by our Drug Czar (aka, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy) has got me wondering: Who exactly does this guy answer to?

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was officially created by the “National Drug-Abuse Act of 1988” (not to be confused with the “National Drug-Abuse Act of 1986”). So the office was created by an act of Congress. But the office itself, and its director, are a part of the executive branch. And, up until the current administration, the Drug Czar was a cabinet-level position.

And then in 1998, Congress passed the “Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998.” That act stated, in part:
The Director ... shall ensure that no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that ... is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration.
OK, sounds clear enough. The Drug Czar’s job has nothing to do with setting policy or providing factual information to citizens. Pretty shameful, if you ask me. But at least we know where the Drug Czar stands on national drug-control policy: Exactly where the federal government tells him to stand.

But wait, there’s more. In March, 2009 the President issued a “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” that stated, in part:
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.
As you can see, the plot has thickened considerably. What was once clear and unambiguous is now confused and contradictory. Congress has mandated that the Drug Czar oppose all efforts to reschedule Schedule I drugs (i.e., legalize them). Science has nothing whatsoever to do with his position on the subject. On the other hand, the President has mandated that science must guide all relevant decisions of his administration, and that policy makers must not lie to the public about science.

So what’s a Drug Czar to do? And I have to ask again, who’s the boss? Does the Czar answer to Congress, who created his position in the first place and who wrote his job description? Or does he answer to the president, who appointed him to a position in the executive branch? For now, at least, it looks like the President’s mandate to tell the truth about the science behind policy decision is trumped by Congress’s mandate to ignore science and stick to the official party line. Not that anybody really believed politicians would suddenly start telling the truth about the reasoning behind their policy decisions. But it sounded good on paper. So to answer the original question, it looks like the Drug Czar answers to the president but must follow the rules laid down by Congress. He is, as I’ve said before, nothing more than a shill for the federal government’s anti-drug propaganda machine. Sad, but true.