FDA Plays Politics with Pot

Clashing with drug-policy reform groups and a growing body of scientific research, the federal government has stepped up its effort to invalidate marijuana as medicine.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement last Thursday asserting that smoked marijuana has no proven medical benefits. The assessment sparked criticism from both the scientific community and activists pushing for changes in drug laws, who say it exposes the White House's effort to spin science in order to push its agenda of criminalizing drug use.

The statement concluded that based on existing research, "no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States." The agency further argued that laws permitting marijuana use as a medical treatment "are inconsistent with efforts to ensure that medications undergo the rigorous scientific scrutiny of the FDA approval process."

Reform groups call the declaration a thinly veiled attempt to preempt both state and federal initiatives to de-criminalize the use of medical marijuana to relieve symptoms related to glaucoma, cancer and other illnesses.

Bruce Mirken, director of communications with the reform group Marijuana Policy Project, told The NewStandard that the FDA's position is "the final proof, if anybody still needed it, that the FDA has become completely politicized, that they're doing politics instead of science. And that, frankly, should frighten everybody, whatever your feelings about medical marijuana."

Organizations advocating for drug-policy reform have railed on the government for ignoring a wealth of clinical studies demonstrating the positive impacts of the drug. In a 1999 report, the federal Institute of Medicine recommended further research on risks and benefits of smoked marijuana, but concluded overall, "Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," particularly for AIDS and chemotherapy patients.

The FDA's opinion folds into an intensifying discussion in Congress over the potential benefits of medical marijuana and the costs of trying to control the drug.

Representative Mark Souder (R-Indiana) has led the push for tightening federal restrictions on medical marijuana through stringent FDA regulation. "Denying the federal government the power to set and enforce uniform standards would simply open up an alternative route for illegal drug trafficking and abuse," he said in a statement following a Supreme Court ruling last June that permitted federal crackdowns on medical marijuana.

But a spate of recent raids on medical-marijuana distribution centers has also sparked resistance from lawmakers and the public. In each legislative session since 1997, Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) has introduced the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, which would relax the ban on marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act and bar federal penalties on patients or medical professionals involved in the administration of medical marijuana.

Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) plans to reintroduce later this year an amendment to House appropriations legislation that would prevent the spending of federal dollars to prosecute medical-marijuana use.

Currently, state laws allow the cultivation and use of medical marijuana in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. In total, about 35 states have at some point enacted supportive legislation, including laws authorizing clinical research, or expressing support for medical marijuana without actually shielding patients from arrest.

In 2005, a two-fold Supreme Court ruling established states' prerogative to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, but also reaffirmed federal authority to prosecute sick people who use marijuana treatment in states that allow it.

In recent years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has led over 20 raids of medical-marijuana distribution centers in California and other states, according to a December 2005 Congressional Research Service report.

Critics say that in its efforts to criminalize marijuana despite evidence of its therapeutic benefits, the government has even resorted to stonewalling further scientific investigation of the drug's safety and effectiveness.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization that supports research on marijuana and similar drugs used for medical or spiritual purposes, has spent several years in a bureaucratic battle -- and now a lawsuit -- over the licensing of a proposed growing facility at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The organization argues that federal regulators have since 2001 "unreasonably delayed" the review procedure for the project, which is intended to supply researchers with high-potency marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement on Friday, "It is shameful to see the FDA talking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue by declaring there is no sound research on the medical benefits of medical marijuana, but at the same time, denying researchers the opportunity to study the efficacy of cannabis."

Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project commented that in the broader debate over drug-policy reform, the FDA's statement strikes at a particularly vulnerable population swept up in the drug war. "From our point of view," he said, "as long as we have a 'war on drugs,' can we please at least remove the sick and wounded from the battlefield?"

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