Medical Marijuana

Pot Hoax

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"Some dismiss medical marijuana as a hoax that exploits our natural compassion for the sick," notes a new report from the Institute of Medicine that details the therapeutic potential of cannabis. The IOM's experts discreetly refrain from adding that it's an opinion shared by the man who commissioned the report.

"There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed," Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the San Francisco Chronicle in August 1996. "This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax." At a December 1996 press conference, McCaffrey was asked whether there was "any evidence… that marijuana is useful in a medical situation." His reply was unequivocal: "No, none at all."

So it was odd that McCaffrey asked the IOM, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, to review the evidence of marijuana's medical utility–evidence he had repeatedly claimed did not exist. Commissioned in January 1997 and released in March, the IOM report (available at www.nap.edu) confirms that it was the drug czar who was perpetrating a hoax.

"The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs [marijuana's active ingredients], particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," the report says. The authors find "there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other drugs." As for the idea that "sanctioning the medical use of marijuana might increase its use in the general population"–another of McCaffrey's favorite bugaboos–"there are no convincing data to support this concern."

The report finds that "the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications," with one exception: Smoking it introduces toxins that may contribute to respiratory illness over the long term. For this reason, the authors conclude that the future of medical marijuana lies not in smoking the whole plant but in absorbing its active components through inhalers or other clean delivery systems.