We're On A Perilous Path

WHY IS IT DANGEROUS for Americans to use marijuana as medicine? The answer is: it may not be. It may surprise you to hear the national drug-policy director say this, but I don't think we should automatically reject the possibility that marijuana may have some medicinal benefits. In fact, a synthetic version of THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, is already approved by the FDA and available with a doctor's prescription. Called Marinol, it's used to ease nausea in cancer patients and help people with AIDS keep up their appetites.

Does that mean the new California law legalizing marijuana as medicine is a good idea? Absolutely not. The truth is, despite the insistence of legalization activists, there is no proof that smoked marijuana is the most effective available treatment for anything. Don't take my word for it. The National Institutes of Health recently examined all of the existing clinical evidence about smoked marijuana. Its conclusion: ""There is no scientifically sound evidence that smoked marijuana is medically superior to currently available therapies.'' This isn't an argument between advocates for legalizing marijuana and the federal government. It's an argument between the legalizers and the American Medical Association, and the American Cancer Society, and the American Ophthalmological Society--all of which oppose the California marijuana initiative.

It seems to me entirely sensible that before we go rushing to embrace the medicinal use of marijuana--or LSD, heroin or any other illicit drug--we ought to find out if it is safe and effective. Every other drug on the market was required to undergo exhaustive testing by the FDA before it was made available to the public. As far as I'm concerned, the door is wide open to marijuana or any other substance--but first it has to pass scientific scrutiny and be subject to peer-group review. (It surprises many people to learn that methamphetamines and even cocaine have been approved for specific medical purposes.)

We have made $1 million available to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences to ask physicians and scientists for all that is known about smoked pot, and what questions need to be asked about it. And I have asked Dr. Harold Varmus, the Nobel laureate and head of the National Institutes of Health, to examine the potential benefits of marijuana. If researchers find there are compounds in marijuana that may have medicinal benefits (cannabis is made up of more than 400 different substances), we must immediately make them available to the American medical community. If they can demonstrate that they are safe and effective, then let's approve them.

Until then, though, it is inconceivable to allow anyone of any age to have uncontrolled use of marijuana for any alleged illness--without a doctor's examination or even prescription. But that is precisely what the California law lets people do. Can you think of any other untested, home-made, mind-altering medicine that you self-dose, and that uses a burning carcinogen as a delivery vehicle?

I think it's clear that a lot of the people arguing for the California proposition and others like it are pushing the legalization of drugs, plain and simple. It sends a very mixed and confusing message to the young. We've got 68 million kids age 18 and below. They're using drugs in enormously increasing numbers. Drug use among eighth graders alone has more than tripled in the last five years. Pretending pot is just another choice makes their decision to stay off drugs that much harder.