When US Drug War General Barry McCaffrey asked the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IoM) to conduct a million dollar study into medicinal marijuana in 1997, he likely expected that scientists and researchers would provide him with justification for the many lies that he and other government officials have long told about marijuana.
McCaffrey and his allies have long insisted that marijuana is a deadly, medically useless, addicting, gateway drug that offers no benefits to users.
In March, the Institute of Medicine delivered a tentative antidote to this official misinformation, releasing its 290-page Medical Marijuana report after 18 months of study. The report was described by Harvard University medical doctor and author Dr Lester Grinspoon as a “tepid, political document that ignores much of the available scientific and patient data that proves marijuana’s efficacy.”
Tepid or not, the report derails the primary arguments that medical marijuana opponents have been propagating for decades. For example, researchers found that marijuana is not addictive. They assert that users can become dependent on it, but the potential for dependence is far less than for other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and even nicotine.
Further, the report says, this dependence is so slight that it only sometimes produces withdrawal symptoms. Some people who quit marijuana experience insomnia, irritability, restlessness, nausea and other problems that are far more benign than withdrawal effects experienced by heroin addicts, alcoholics, coffee drinkers and tobacco smokers.
Researchers rejected the archaic allegation that marijuana leads users to try harder drugs such as heroin, saying there was no evidence to support the gateway theory. They found that legalizing medical marijuana, or decriminalizing marijuana, had no cause and effect impact on how many people use marijuana. This finding must have been particularly distressing to McCaffrey and his ilk, who insist that legalizing medical pot would lead to abuse by sending a message to children that marijuana is good for you.
The IoM report also dispels the myth that marijuana suppresses immune system functions and is therefore especially bad for people with HIV and cancer. Marijuana contains anti-oxidants and other properties that make it a tumour-killer, and the report reveals that there is no clear evidence that it compromises the immune system.
On other subjects, such as marijuana’s medical effectiveness and legal status, the report suffered from the subconscious political bias of its authors, as well as from curious lapses in comprehensiveness.
For example, the report alleges that marijuana smoke contains harmful compounds that could lead to cancer and respiratory diseases, but failed to mention that all but the most chronic marijuana users inhale small quantities of smoke that are likely to pose little health risk. And even though medical marijuana advocates told researchers about vaporizers and marijuana food recipes that minimize the amount of hazardous particulates inhaled by marijuana smokers, the report nowhere mentions these less harmful methods for using marijuana.
Researchers seemed to talk out of both sides of their mouths when it came to the question of whether smoked medicine is useful and allowable. After overhyping the risks of marijuana smoke, the report notes that for terminally-ill patients, long-term lung damage might not be something they’d worry about anyway! The report suggests that such patients could be allowed to smoke marijuana for less than six months, closely supervised by medical personnel.
The report also recommends research to isolate and synthesize the full range of cannabinoids present in raw marijuana. The authors hope that pharmaceutical companies will devise inhalers, patches, pills or other devices that deliver marijuana’s medical benefits without asking patients to inhale harmful smoke.
Hopes for a miraculous smokeless version of marijuana are offset by the report’s acknowledgement that for patients with AIDS or undergoing chemotherapy who suffer from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad spectrum relief not found in any other single medication. Researchers also admit that until a non-smoke delivery system is developed, there is no clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions such as pain or AIDS wasting, that might be relieved by smoking marijuana.
Although pundits on all sides of the debate put their own predictable spins on the IoM report, medical marijuana activists generally agreed that it was overall a useful document. However, the report’s most significant failings can be delineated as follows:
? It doesn’t mention the success of eight pot-smoking patients in the US government’s Compassionate Investigational New Drug program.
? It refuses to acknowledge people’s right to grow and use medicine, and instead attempts to make marijuana a prisoner of the pharmaceutical industry.
? It proposes years of costly studies to prove what marijuana users already know: that cannabis makes them feel better.
? It places regulations, hierarchies and mediators in the therapeutic process, proposing that medical pot users and their physicians jump through burning hoops of fire in order to utilize cannabis.
? It holds cannabis to a far higher safe use standard than most of the other drugs already approved for prescriptive use, many of which have far worse side-effects than marijuana has.
? It mindlessly assumes that we are incapable of governing our own bodies, using nature to heal ourselves, or ingesting whatever substance we damn well please.
The Lords of Medicine are firmly in charge of the IOM report: the paradigm underlying their discourse is that nature makes mistakes, that people are unable to use therapeutic plants and herbs intelligently, and that we must ask government, pharmaceutical companies, physicians and pharmacists for permission to heal ourselves. Further, we must pay them for the privilege of asking them to allow us to use a plant that we could all grow for free were it not for prohibition.
The report specifically states that medical marijuana should remain illegal and not be licensed as a drug. Still, General Barry McCaffrey, speaking at a Los Angeles news conference shortly after the report was released, seemed displeased by the IoM’s findings.
Neither he nor any other administration official indicated that the report would result in a rescheduling of marijuana to allow its prescription, or a change in hard-line federal prohibitionist policy toward the six Western states where medical marijuana has been legalized.
“I think that what the IoM report said is that smoked marijuana is harmful, particularly for those with chronic conditions,” McCaffrey said, leaving reporters to wonder if he had read the same report that they had read, or if perhaps he was hallucinating.
One gift the IoM gave us: they admitted that the euphoric marijuana high was not a barrier to its medical use. In fact, researchers admitted, the high could be therapeutic, especially for patients suffering from anxiety and chronic pain.