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Politics Ignoring Science: Federal Agency Recognizes Therapeutic Benefit of Medical Marijuana While 9-Year-Old Petition to Reclassify the Plant Gathers Dust

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The federal government has maintained for decades, even over the objections of its own Administrative Law Judges, that marijuana (cannabis) is a dangerous drug with no medical value. However, something happened in March to draw attention not only to evidence of marijuana's beneficial effect on people living with cancer, but also to the government's glaring hypocrisy around the issue of medical marijuana. In fact, this hypocrisy reveals to Americans the struggle between politics and science, and makes the federal government's contradictory policies on medical marijuana that much more tenuous.

In March, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one of 11 federal agencies under the National Institutes of Health, changed its website to include Cannabis as a Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM), with possible benefits for people living with cancer. Specifically, the website read:

The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. In the practice of integrative oncology, the health care provider may recommend medicinal Cannabis not only for symptom management but also for its possible direct antitumor effect.

NCI further stated that:

Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years prior to its current status as an illegal substance.

Quite an admission for an agency that answers to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which for years has steadfastly maintained that cannabis "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Perhaps it was this stark contradiction that compelled NCI to recently alter its web page on medical cannabis.

Earlier this week, NCI removed reference to the "possible direct antitumor effect" of cannabis from its website. Although there have been studies linking cannabis with halting and decreasing tumor growth in animals and in the petri dish, NCI chose likely under pressure not to focus attention on the promise of medical cannabis. Politics wins another round over science, despite supposed federal policies to prevent it. Research is suppressed and hundreds of thousands of patients lose.

Another of many elephants in the room for the Obama Administration is a 9-year old petition to reclassify cannabis from its Schedule I status, the most dangerous of controlled substances. Since the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC) filed its petition in 2002, many more studies have been conducted that recognize the therapeutic effects of cannabis, eight more states passed medical marijuana laws, and the country's two largest physician groups -- American Medical Association and American College of Physicians -- have both called for a review of marijuana's status as a Schedule I substance.

The rescheduling coalition, which includes groups like Americans for Safe Access (ASA), is seeking federal recognition of medical cannabis while underscoring its relatively benign side effects. However, politics has played a significant role in ignoring the science here too. In 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ignored its own judicial recommendations from Judge Francis L. Young, denying the pending petition despite his conclusion that, "The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision." Although final rescheduling determinations are made by DEA, the review process relies heavily on recommendations from HHS, the federal department that oversees NCI.

Another lesser-known contradiction of federal cannabis policies has to do with the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) pill Marinol. Though ineffective for many medical cannabis patients, Marinol will go off patent this year and a number of companies are vying for generic licenses. Companies are asking the government to allow them to grow marijuana in order to extract the natural form of THC, the primary active chemical in the plant used in the pill. Marinol is currently made with synthetic THC, but it is cheaper to extract the chemical from the plant.

This hypocrisy must end and science is bound to prevail over politics. It's not acceptable to hold millions of sick Americans hostage to such a political double standard. It's time for the Obama Administration to recognize the science, act with integrity, and reschedule cannabis.

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