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Obama, What About "Free and Open Scientific Inquiry" for Medical Marijuana?

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Being a physicist, not a physician, I don't usually comment on issues in medical science. But I can no longer remain silent while people in my family and profession run the risk of federal arrest so that they can follow the recommendations of their doctors. Medical marijuana offers relief to people I care about, yet it remains illegal in the view of the United States government.

Aside from my personal stake in this issue, my professional experience has led me to ask the most obvious question a scientist could ask: Why hasn't the long-running controversy over medical marijuana been resolved using science?

Two months after taking office, President Obama endorsed the principle of basing government policy on sound science. Compared to his predecessor, this was a much-needed breath of fresh air. In a speech celebrating the restoration of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, our new president said the previous policy was misguided. "Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," he explained.

To better guide federal policy, President Obama issued a memorandum to all executive departments and agencies that began,

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

This directive seemed to confirm America's commitment to innovation by protecting what President Obama called "free and open scientific inquiry." He said researchers should be able to work "free from manipulation or coercion," while policymakers "listen to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient." Advocates for stem cell research applauded loudly when the president said his intention was "ensuring that scientific data are never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

The Obama administration has improved the role of science in the decision-making process in many areas of government, and Mr. Romney would probably undo this progress. However, as Barack Obama runs for re-election, his administration is ignoring scientists' voices on medical marijuana policy, and it is severely restricting their ability to conduct new research.

It's hard to escape the fact that there is a growing gap between the American public and the federal government on this topic. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana in one way or another. Public debate over the subject has mostly been confined to the question of how exactly marijuana should be delivered to the patients in states allowing its use. Increasing numbers of medical professionals are speaking out in support of the new laws as the biochemical understanding of marijuana's medicinal properties continues to grow.

Meanwhile, the federal government takes the official position of the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana belongs in the Schedule I category of controlled substances as a deadly narcotic on par with heroin, far too dangerous to be prescribed by doctors for medical use.

This enormous gap between what the public accepts as true and what the government insists is true has a long, unfortunate history. It reminds me of the great divide that developed between the then-ruling Catholic Church and the European public over the order of the cosmos in the 17th century. In 1633, the Church sentenced Galileo Galilei to lifetime house arrest for claiming that the earth revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around.

By 1686, Newton and Kepler had put heliocentrism on a firm mathematical footing, and literate Europeans were devouring the first generation of popular science books on the subject. Despite the widespread public acceptance of heliocentrism, the Church did not end its ban on the sale of such books in Rome until 1822.

In our modern world, we are blessed to have a large scientific community and the ability to employ advanced technology to prove and disprove hypotheses. It is surprising that the widening gap between public acceptance of medical marijuana and vehement resistance by federal authority has not already been resolved by science.

History, unfortunately, shows science has rarely been a factor in deciding federal marijuana policy. Representing the American Medical Association, Dr. William Woodward testified against the first federal marijuana law in 1937. He explained that marijuana was being used as a medicinal substance and doctors had found no evidence that it was harmful. The new law, he warned, would discourage research into medical applications of the drug.

Congress did not take Dr. Woodward's objections seriously -- just as the testimony of doctors and scientists on federal marijuana policy is ignored today. The Drug Enforcement Administration takes the position that marijuana belongs in the Schedule I category of controlled substances as a deadly narcotic on a par with heroin, too dangerous to be prescribed by doctors for medical use. It was a politically motivated classification when the Nixon Administration established it in the 1970's and that remains the case today, with the Obama Administration's evidence-free denial of a petition for rescheduling last year.

As a result, while scientists around the world are testing the ability of marijuana to treat a variety of physical and psychological ailments, in the United States our government puts up roadblocks.

Last year, Dr. Susan Sisley at the University of Arizona at Phoenix attempted to conduct clinical trials of marijuana treatments for American veterans suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder. She won FDA approval for a placebo-controlled pilot study on 50 veterans.

Winning FDA approval would be sufficient for research on any other drug. With marijuana, however, scientists must also apply to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in order to purchase the only legal supply of marijuana.

NIDA turned down Dr. Sisley's request. As their director explained, NIDA's mission is to support research into the harms, not the benefits, of marijuana. Essentially, NIDA's mission is to block any research that could undermine the Schedule I status of marijuana as a dangerous narcotic, as insisted by the DEA.

One has to wonder: would NIDA administrators have rejected this study if they anticipated it would prove marijuana does not work as a remedy for PTSD?

NIDA and the DEA get paid by the taxpayers to fight a PR and law enforcement war against marijuana. Marijuana accounts for 80% of drugs seized by the DEA. Thus, these agencies have a vested interest in restricting research into any possible medical uses for marijuana, research that could cause the public to become less frightened of marijuana and less eager to invest their tax dollars in marijuana prohibition.

This situation is analogous to giving coal and oil companies the power to approve or disapprove funding for climate research, or requiring paleontologists to apply to a federal agency made up of anti-evolution fundamentalists for permission to conduct digs.

The acceptance of science has come a long way since Galileo was arrested as a heretic for questioning the order of the Universe. Yet today, the federal government ignores scientific facts accepted around the globe -- not to mention the will of the American people -- to cling to outdated ideological policies and restrict marijuana research. This is hardly the "free and open scientific inquiry" President Obama touted in 2009.

As a scientist, I fear what this ultimately means for the pursuit of truth. As an American, I am concerned what it means about the relationship between this government and its citizens.

So I call on my fellow scientists to persuade the president to apply his doctrine of basing government policy on sound science to medical marijuana by signing this petition.

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