Science: The Drug Wars Latest Victim

Salim Muwakkil May 19, 2006

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?

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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