The Justice Department says it's backing off the prosecution of people who smoke pot or sell it in compliance with state laws that permit "medical marijuana." Attorney General Eric Holder says "it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers." Party hardy! I mean -- let the healing begin!
I don't think the federal government should be spending a whole lot of time on small-time druggies, and I'm undecided about legalizing pot, which enjoys 44 percent support among the general public, according to a recent poll. Recreational use is not the wisest thing -- and if my 12-year-old son is reading this, that means you! -- but it's no more harmful than other drugs (e.g., alcohol) and impossible to eradicate. On the other hand, I worry it's a gateway to harder stuff. So I think we probably should have an open debate about decriminalization.
But it should be a real debate, about real decriminalization, and not clouded -- pardon the expression -- by hokum about "medical marijuana." To the extent it puts the attorney general's imprimatur on the notion that people are getting pot from "caregivers" to deal "with serious illnesses" -- as opposed to growing their own or flocking to "dispensaries" just to get high -- the Justice Department's move is not so constructive.
I do not deny that for some people, including some terminal cancer patients and pain-wracked AIDS sufferers, marijuana is a blessed relief. Let 'em smoke, I say, just as the Justice Department has usually ignored such cases since long before Holder spoke up. But if you believe there is any scientific evidence that smoked marijuana has the multiplicity of therapeutic uses that advocates claim -- well, I've got a bag of oregano I'd like to sell you.
Usually, drugs have to pass exacting testing by the Food and Drug Administration before they go on the market. There's a good reason for this: we don't want people spending money on products that might be ineffective or actually harmful. In California and elsewhere, however, snake oil -- sorry, "medical marijuana" -- got on the market via a different route: popular referendum. The pot for sale in dispensaries is subject to none of the purity controls that actual pharmaceutical drugs must meet. Indeed, the new DOJ policy essentially recognizes a gray market for pot, leaving these supposedly seriously ill people at the mercy of their dealers -- I mean caregivers -- with respect to quality and efficacy.
What other substances should we handle this way? Cocaine? Laetrile? Didn't President Obama just sign a bill authorizing the FDA to regulate the nicotine content of tobacco? And I thought he promised to "restore science to its rightful place."
Under California's law, you don't even need a prescription to get pot (which would admittedly have been a problem, since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency controls who gets a prescription pad, and not many doctors would use theirs to prescribe an illegal drug). All it takes is a "written or oral recommendation" from a physician.
A few years ago, a California woman called Angel Raich took her defense of medical pot all the way to the Supreme Court. She lost on the legal issue, which had nothing to do with the medical effectiveness of pot. Along the way, though, she claimed that she was suffering from "life-threatening" scoliosis, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, bruxism, endometriosis, headache, rotator cuff syndrome, uterine fibroids, and Schwannoma. The Latin names might have snowed some judges, but physicians recognized each of these conditions as a common, non-life-threatening problem for which conventional treatments were available. Raich listed a cornucopia of potent drugs, from Vicodin to Methadone, that she had tried previously and gotten no satisfaction. I'm not a doctor, but I thought she might consider a consultation for hypochondria, or perhaps marijuana dependency.
This is not an isolated instance. According to a survey by NORML, the pro-"medical marijuana" organization, which can be expected to emphasize the desperate health of users, only 22 percent of California medical marijuana users suffer from AIDS-related disease. Most of the rest have more subjective maladies such as "chronic pain" or "mood disorders."
Raich's physician was Frank Lucido, a well-known Berkeley doctor and pro-pot activist -- he also makes money as an expert witness on "medical marijuana" -- whose Web site boasts that he was "investigated by the Medical Practices Board of California for cannabis evaluation practices in 2003, and fully exonerated." The case involved his recommendation of marijuana to treat attention deficit disorder in a 16-year-old boy, but, as I say, he was fully exonerated.
In a brilliant article (requires subscription) on this subject in the Hastings Center Report, a bioethics journal, lawyer and anesthesiologist Peter J. Cohen noted that "medical marijuana" groups have been notably passive about demanding FDA testing and approval for this purported elixir. Instead, they took their case to the people. As Cohen argued, this is no way to make health policy: "medical marijuana," he wrote, should be "subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as any drug proposed for use in medical therapy, rather than made legal for medical use by popular will." The "medical marijuana" movement may not be a threat to our civilization, but it is an insult to our intelligence.
By Charles Lane | October 20, 2009; 5:56 PM ET