The federal government's medical-marijuana program, overseen by three bureaucracies that required complicated paperwork and imposed mysterious delays, was not designed to work. When it seemed that it might, it had to be canceled.
For 15 years Robert C. Randall and his organization, the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, have been advising patients seeking to obtain marijuana for treatment of various ailments (including glaucoma, muscle spasms, and the nausea and vomiting associated with AIDS and cancer chemotherapy) under the Compassionate Investigative New Drug program. In recent years ACT has vastly simplified the application process for doctors and patients, shortening the time required from about 50 hours to about 15 minutes.
As a result, the Food and Drug Administration, accustomed to receiving one or two requests for marijuana each year, saw a flood of hundreds, many from AIDS patients, in 1990 and 1991. Last summer James Mason, head of the Public Health Service, announced that the medical marijuana program had been suspended. In March a PHS spokesman, citing concerns about the effect of marijuana on people with weakened immune systems, said the program had been eliminated.
"The program was threatening to make a charade out of the prohibition," Randall says. "The government had a contradictory policy. On the one hand, it argued that marijuana had no medical value. On the other hand, it argued that anyone who medically needed marijuana could get it through this wonderful program."
About a week after the PHS announcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration again refused to make marijuana available by prescription. The DEA was responding to a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that said the agency's criteria for classifying drugs are nebulous and illogical. DEA chief Robert C. Bonner reiterated the agency's position that marijuana has no legitimate medical use. He failed to note that the DEA's own administrative law judge had reached the opposite conclusion, based on the same evidence, in 1988.
"They're trying to put this issue to rest, and they've done it with a two-pronged approach," says Greg Porter, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which has been fighting the DEA in court for 22 years. "They've effectively eliminated any future legal access to marijuana, short of Congress enacting some sort of legislation." Porter says Congress may take up the issue this session; Randall is advising patients to contact their representatives.
Kevin Zeese, vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation, notes that neither the PHS nor the DEA allowed a period for public comment before making their decisions final. "Both agencies acted in secret," he says. "They're so insecure about what they're doing, they had to hide it."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Weed Out".