General Confusion

Contradicting Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an expert panel appointed by the National Institutes of Health issued a report in August that said marijuana has significant potential as a treatment for glaucoma, muscle spasticity, AIDS wasting syndrome, the side effects of cancer chemotherapy, and other serious conditions. The panelists said marijuana "looks promising enough to recommend that there be new controlled studies done."

In response to voter initiatives in California and Arizona that approved the medical use of marijuana, McCaffrey insisted "there is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed." He called the very idea "a cruel hoax." The Clinton administration has threatened doctors who recommend cannabis to their patients with criminal prosecution, loss of prescribing privileges, and exclusion from Medicare and Medicaid.

Opponents of medical marijuana claim that Marinol--a capsule containing a synthetic version of THC, marijuana's main active ingredient--is a superior alternative. But the NIH panel noted that there are some patients "for whom the inhalation route might offer advantages over the currently available capsule formulation."

Members of the panel also contradicted the notion, promoted by McCaffrey and other administration officials, that marijuana is too dangerous for medical use. "[W]e know that there are no extreme immediate toxicity issues," Stanford pharmacologist Dr. Avram Goldstein said at a roundtable discussion in February. "It's a very safe drug, and therefore it would be perfectly safe medically to let the patient determine their own dose by the smoking route."

Information about the panel's conclusions is available from the Marijuana Policy Project at www.mpp.org.

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