Twenty years ago, on Sept. 6, 1988, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief administrative law judge issued a landmark ruling, but don’t expect any celebrations or commemorations in Washington, D.C. Our government has ignored this historic decision since the day it was issued, inflicting needless misery on millions.
Indeed, most Americans don’t know it ever happened.
In response to a petition asking that marijuana be moved from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act, which bars medical use, to a lower schedule that would permit physician prescriptions, Judge Francis Young held extensive hearings that began in the summer of 1986. He heard from an impressive array of expert witnesses, resulting in thousands of pages of documentation.
Young laid out his findings in a detailed, 69-page ruling, walking readers through the scientific evidence. He concluded that the law didn’t just permit moving marijuana to Schedule II, but required it.
“Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” he wrote. “By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care. … The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”
Remember, this was no pot-addled “legalizer” writing. It was the chief administrative law judge within the top federal agency responsible for enforcing our drug laws. Unfortunately, the ruling had no legal force. In legal terms, it was a recommendation, not an order that had to be followed.
And the DEA chose not to follow it. Six years after top DEA officials rejected Young’s recommendation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled that the agency did have the right to ignore its own administrative law judge.
Because the federal government chose to disregard the results of its own investigation, the medical marijuana controversy continues to rage today. Losing patience with the feds, 12 states have acted to permit medical use of marijuana under their state laws. If Michigan passes the medical marijuana initiative on its November ballot, that number will increase to 13, comprising roughly 1 in 4 Americans.
But while those state laws provide considerable protection for medical marijuana patients, states cannot provide an exemption from federal law. Even in the 12 states that have medical marijuana laws, patients and caregivers have been arrested, terrorized and even had their children taken away.
Meanwhile, the medical evidence continues to mount. Another federally commissioned study, this time by the Institute of Medicine, confirmed in 1999 that marijuana has legitimate medical uses.
More recently, newly published clinical trials have found that marijuana effectively relieves certain types of hard-to-treat pain, including the nerve pain that often accompanies multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Other research suggests that by relieving the nausea and vomiting often caused by the harsh drugs used to treat hepatitis C and HIV, medical marijuana can help patients stick to these challenging drug regimens — and live.
Because our government has ignored science, needless suffering has been inflicted on millions of Americans who have benefited or could benefit from medical marijuana. In 2009, we will have a new president and a new Congress, and they should move quickly to end this sorry record of federal stonewalling.
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