Science: The Drug Wars Latest Victim

Salim Muwakkil

The war on drugs is an attack on rationality. Reason lost yet another skirmish recently when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on April 20 that no sound scientific studies” supported the medical use of marijuana.

Despite a wealth of new information regarding the therapeutic potential of marijuana, the U.S. government refuses to alter its prohibitionist restrictions.

The announcement flatly contradicts the conclusion of virtually every major study on the efficacy of medical marijuana, including two performed by the government. In a New York Times article the following day, Dr. Jerry Avorn of Harvard Medical School said this is yet another example of the FDA making pronouncements that seems to be driven more by ideology than science.”

Avorn’s criticism is one regularly leveled at the Bush administration, namely, that it is using politics to trump science. Last year, for example, the ACLU released a report titled Science Under Siege” that detailed efforts by the Bush administration to hamper scientific inquiry in the name of ideology and national security.

The report found the administration has censored and prescreened scientific articles before publication, suppressed environmental and public health information, and increased restrictions on materials commonly used in basic scientific research.

For two years the Union of Concerned Scientists has circulated a petition statement which now contains the signatures of 9,000 U.S. scientists, including 49 Nobel Prize winners and 63 National Medal of Science recipients. The statement complains that the Bush administration advocates policies that are not scientifically sound,” and sometimes has misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implication of its politics.” This comes on the heels of a host of other accusations against the administration – charges of censoring a NASA scientist on issues of global warming and burying data on the morning-after Plan B contraceptive.

But the FDA announcement on marijuana is perhaps the most blatant effort to ignore scientific reality. Critics charge that the statement was issued to bolster opponents of various medical marijuana initiatives that have passed in 11 states. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and John P. Walters, the director of national drug control policy (the Drug Czar) oppose the use of medical marijuana. The Times quoted Walters’ spokesman Tom Riley, who said the FDA’s statement would put to rest what he called the bizarre public discussion” that has helped legalize medical marijuana. But Riley failed to note that some of that discussion was sparked by an exhaustive DEA investigation into cannabis (the scientific name for marijuana) from 1986 to 1988. The comprehensive study examined evidence from doctors, patients and thousands of documents regarding marijuana’s medical utility. 

Following a hearing on the study’s findings, the DEA’s administrative judge Francis L. Young released a ruling on Sept. 6, 1988, that noted, Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects. But marijuana is not such a substance …” Marijuana in its natural form, he said, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis, marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”

He recommended that “(The) provisions of the (Controlled Substances) Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.”

The New England Journal of Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public Health Association, AIDS Action Council and dozens of other medical groups have endorsed medical marijuana. Anecdotal evidence from Oregon, one of the states that legalized marijuana’s medical uses,”adds to the mountain of data supporting the medicinal value of pot,” according to a May 1 editorial in the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard.

Despite this and a growing wealth of new information (particularly new research on cannabanoid medicine by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam out of Hebrew University in Jerusalem) regarding the therapeutic potential of marijuana and its various analogues, the U.S. government refuses to alter its prohibitionist restrictions on marijuana use or research. 

Although the Bushites’ rejection of scientific reality is particularly egregious, governmental irrationality about marijuana has been bipartisan. Indeed, more people suffered pot arrests during the Clinton administration than in any other before or since. Washington, in general, seems particularly susceptible to distorted reasoning or magical thinking when considering this ancient herb. 

Isn’t it a sign of mental disorder when distorted reasoning is unchanged by empirical evidence? What is it about marijuana that drives our politicians insane?

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.

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