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Sanjay Gupta: What the Next Surgeon General Doesn't Know About Pot

The next surgeon general needs to stop putting politics before science. Gupta may not be ready for that.

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By 2006, the Washington Post reported on Tashkin's latest research on cannabis use and cancer. Tashkin said, "We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use. What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect."

As for driving, nobody here at NORML suggests that people smoke cannabis and then drive a car. But someone's potential irresponsible use of cannabis is not an argument for the danger of cannabis itself. In fact, researchers at Britain's Transport Research Laboratory found in September that text messaging and alcohol are far more dangerous on the road than cannabis. "The reaction times of people texting as they drove fell by 35 percent, while those who had consumed the legal limit of alcohol, or taken cannabis, fell by 21 percent and 12 percent respectively."

To be fair, in his 2006 Time article, Gupta does seem to begrudgingly admit some of cannabis' vast medicinal uses:

Several recent studies, including a new one from the Scripps Research Institute, show that THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for the high, can help slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease. (In fact, it seems to block the formation of disease-causing plaques better than several mainstream drugs.) Other studies have shown THC to be a very effective anti-nausea treatment for people -- cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example -- for whom conventional medications aren't working. And medical cannabis has shown promise relieving pain in patients with multiple sclerosis and reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients.

But back in 2002, even when he gives in on the most recognized medical uses of cannabis, he still recites the government line that there are other drugs that can be used instead of cannabis:

There are some benefits to marijuana use. It can make cancer chemotherapy patients hungrier -- also in HIV and AIDS patients. … And marijuana can offer some of those things, especially when it comes to reducing nausea and vomiting, not advocating that necessarily myself. I think there are other ways to do that besides marijuana.

This is the mind-set I call "marijuana as medicine of last resort." It's the concept that any time a medical benefit to cannabis is absolutely undeniable, then it can be somewhat accepted, but only if no other medicine will suffice. This "medicine of last resort" idea is the notion that if both OxyContin and cannabis will relieve pain, you should take OxyContin because it is legal, despite the fact that OxyContin is addictive and has severe side effects. It's the notion that if you're vomiting from severe nausea, you should first try to swallow a synthetic THC pill called Marinol that won't work for 45 minutes rather than smoking an illegal doobie that works immediately.  Even when cannabis is the superior medicine for a symptom or condition, the drug-war mentality that there are "good" drugs and "bad" drugs kicks in, and the doctors will recommend a less-effective "good" drug over the more-effective "bad" one.

In a weekly radio address to the nation, President-elect Barack Obama offered his view of science and public policy:

Because the truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as president of the United States -- and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

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