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Medical Marijuana: A Science-Free Zone At The White House

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President Obama came into office promising to reverse George W. Bush administration practices and elevate science over politics. He explicitly applied that principle to drug policy, an area long driven by ideology and prejudice. He quickly began to make good on the pledge by promoting three evidence-based drug policies: eliminating the ban on states using federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis; reforming the racially unjust crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that punished crack offenses more harshly than powder offenses; and vowing to end years of federal interference in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.

But as a recent L.A. Times article makes dismayingly clear, the White House is putting the "science-free zone" sign back up.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued medical marijuana guidelines to U.S. attorneys that are at best confusing and at worst a flip-flop on administration policy. The department's much-heralded 2009 memo on the subject fulfilled candidate Obama's campaign promise and established a principle that federal resources would not be wasted prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers who are in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state medical marijuana laws. The department's update reiterates that the feds won't target individual medical marijuana patients but might bust large-scale, commercial medical marijuana providers. The memo unequivocally threatens federal prosecution of large-scale medical marijuana providers even if they are in compliance with state law, a significant step away from the principle at the heart of the 2009 policy. Disturbingly, the new "clarification" doesn't explain what the federal government considers to be the line between small and large-scale production -- likely an attempt to slow state-sponsored medical marijuana distribution programs while sowing anxiety and confusion for patients.

Most recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected a formal citizen petition filed nine years ago to reschedule marijuana to make it available for medical use. When the DEA considered a similar petition during the Reagan administration, the agency's administrative law judge concluded, "Marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people." The Obama administration's rejection of the petition claims marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States ... lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision... [and] has a high potential for abuse." Lest one think the DEA's ruling is just law enforcement run amok, the White House released its 2011 National Drug Control Strategy earlier this week, calling marijuana "addictive and unsafe." That document devotes five pages attacking marijuana legalization and medical marijuana.

The administration's disconnect from science is shocking. A federally commissioned study by the Institute of Medicine more than a decade ago determined that nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety "all can be mitigated by marijuana." The esteemed medical journal the Lancet Neurology reports that marijuana's active components "inhibit pain in virtually every experimental pain paradigm." The National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes that marijuana may help with nausea, loss of appetite, pain and insomnia. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia, home to 90 million Americans, have adopted laws allowing the medical use of marijuana to treat AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other ailments. The federal government itself cultivates and supplies marijuana to a handful of patients through its "compassionate-use investigative new drug program," which was established in 1978 but closed to new patients in 1992.

Marijuana use, like any drug, certainly carries risks. When it comes to policy, however, these risks should be weighed against the harms associated with current marijuana laws. It is notable that every comprehensive, objective government commission that has examined marijuana throughout the past 100 years has concluded that criminalization of adult marijuana use does more harm than marijuana use itself. Moreover, the risks associated with marijuana use are demonstrably far less than those associated with Oxycontin, methamphetamine, morphine and other drugs currently available for medical use. It defies not just science but common sense for the Obama administration to be so aggressively anti-marijuana, especially for medical use.

It is not too late to reverse this science-phobic trend. The Department of Justice's recent medical marijuana guidance is vague enough that the administration can clarify it intends to scrutinize only massive, rogue medical marijuana operations and that the DEA won't waste resources going after most providers in most states. The administration should clearly support responsible state and local regulations designed to make marijuana legally available to patients while enhancing public safety and health. If the federal government is unable to provide leadership in this area, then the very least it can do is get out of the way and allow local governments to determine the policies that best serve their interests. The president who promised change rooted in rational reflection shouldn't stand in the way of it.

This piece was co-written by Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Bill Piper is Director of National Affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance.

This article first appeared in the L.A. times on July 14th.