Obama Makes a Good First Step on Medical Marijuana -- Here's What He Should Do Next


On Feb. 5, the Obama administration quietly but firmly broke with more than a decade of federal policy on medical marijuana, signaling an end to the federal war on state medical marijuana laws. The question now is, what next?

In response to questions about a series of Drug Enforcement Administration raids on medical marijuana collectives in Los Angeles, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told the Washington Times, "The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind."

The low-key language may obscure what a sea change this represents. Ever since California voters passed the first modern medical marijuana law in 1996, official policy has been to use federal resources to attack these laws in every way possible.

Clinton administration efforts to bar doctors from recommending marijuana were shot down by the courts, but the Bush administration raided dispensaries and sometimes arrested medical marijuana patients and providers. Owners of buildings where medical marijuana dispensaries operate legally under state law have been threatened with seizure of their property.

Now there are 13 medical marijuana states, comprising one-quarter of the U.S. population. Support has been wide and bipartisan, from Montana to Rhode Island. Most importantly, a series of scientific studies published since 2007 have verified that marijuana is a safe, effective treatment for a variety of serious and painful medical conditions.

That represents both a challenge and an opportunity for a president who has committed his administration to "ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology" and "listening to what our scientists have to say. Even when it's inconvenient." The medical marijuana issue begs for that principle to be put into practice.

The first imperative is to install new leadership at the DEA -- leadership that will follow Obama's command to stop interfering with state medical marijuana laws and, just as important, stop obstructing science. The DEA has moved to block a medical marijuana research facility at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, despite the fact that its own administrative law judge recommended that the project be allowed to proceed.

The reasons given by acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart -- a Bush holdover -- were transparently phony: an ideological opposition to medical marijuana dressed up in pseudoscientific language. This is precisely the sort of nonsense Obama has pledged to end.

But stopping the raids, cleaning out the obstructionists at the DEA and letting the University of Massachusetts effort (and other worthy research projects) go forward should be just the start. The federal law that classifies marijuana as having no recognized use in medicine and as unsafe for use even under physician supervision is scientifically laughable. The American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association are just a few of the organizations that have urged that this unscientific policy be rethought.

Here's a step the administration could take quickly, without Congress getting involved: Under a program begun in the late 1970s and supervised by the FDA, the federal government supplies medical marijuana to a handful of patients. President George H.W. Bush closed new enrollment into the program, called an IND (Investigational New Drug), back in 1992.

By reopening the IND, President Obama could help suffering patients in states that don't have medical marijuana laws, while maintaining tight FDA supervision to prevent abuse. The program could obtain data from these patients that would add greatly to our body of knowledge about medical marijuana.

If science is truly to triumph over ideology, medical marijuana is the perfect place to start.

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