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A Times Editorial

Reefer madness remains

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

If Americans were to look closely at the federal government's policy on medical marijuana, they'd have to wonder what their government is smoking.

In every way possible, the federal government has tried to stymie the use of marijuana for highly limited medicinal purposes, even in the light of substantial anecdotal evidence that the drug offers significant relief for some symptoms of glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and the side effects of cancer treatment. Worse, the government doesn't appear to want medical science to discern whether those claims are real or hype. It has enacted unreasonably high hurdles for researchers hoping to study marijuana's medicinal effects.

While the federal government is busy obstructing research, voters in seven states and the District of Columbia have decided that science and compassion matter. They have tried to bypass official resistance by approving marijuana's limited medical use through voter referendums.

Voters have approved medical marijuana in every state where the stand-alone question has been on the ballot, and politicians have taken notice. Earlier this month, Hawaii became the first state to authorize medical marijuana through legislative enactment. The law is narrowly drawn so that only those with certain qualifying illnesses may legally possess and use marijuana and only after obtaining a doctor's recommendation and registering with the state.

As he was signing the bill into law, Gov. Benjamin Cayetano said how pleased he was to be adding this option for doctors and their patients. "My own feeling is, more states are going to come on," Cayetano said.

Not if the federal government can help it.

Since states have liberalized medical marijuana, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has threatened the prescription-writing privileges of those doctors willing to recommend the drug under state guidelines, and Congress has taken steps to ensure that the District of Columbia's medical marijuana initiative would not take effect.

The many claims of marijuana's medicinal benefits aren't necessarily true, but until the government allows significant medical research, we will never know. One recent analysis was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. The study, released in 1999 and funded by the White House drug policy office, concluded that "there are some limited circumstances in which we recommend smoking marijuana for medical uses."

In accordance with the report's recommendations, the Department of Health and Human Services was supposed to ease restrictions on marijuana research. But the guidelines that went into effect in December were far from relaxed. Rather than put marijuana on a par with other synthesized pharmaceuticals under study, the guidelines impose procedural hurdles, including getting special approval by a Public Health Service ad hoc panel even after the Food and Drug Administration has approved the research protocols.

There are plenty of examples of otherwise controlled substances, from codeine to morphine, that may be prescribed under strict medical supervision. If marijuana truly has medical benefits, then it should be available by prescription. But until the federal government stops its reefer madness, we'll never learn for certain what those benefits are, if any.

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