Is the Drug Czar Legally Required to Lie?


A few weeks ago, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske falsely asserted that marijuana "has no medicinal benefit." As I said at the time, one can argue that smoking (or vaporizing) a plant is not an appropriate way to take medicine, that better alternatives are available, or that no one should use any medicine that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But it is beyond serious dispute that THC, and therefore cannabis, is effective at relieving nausea, restoring appetite, and reducing pain. Instead of revising Kerlikowske's blatantly inaccurate claim, the Marijuana Policy Project notes, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is insisting he was right, citing a 2006 press release in which the FDA addressed "claims that smoked marijuana is a medicine." Unsurprisingly, the FDA rejected the consumption of raw plant matter in favor of FDA-approved drugs. But as the ONDCP acknowledges, these drugs already include a synthetic THC capsule (Marinol) and may soon include a cannabis extract sprayed beneath the tongue (Sativex). In other words, the FDA's own regulatory judgments show Kerlikowske is lying when he says marijuana "has no medicinal benefit."

As for why Kerlikowske, supposedly a more-enlightened-than-usual drug warrior, feels compelled to lie about such well-established facts, perhaps it's because he is legally required to do so. A couple of years ago at DrugWarRant, Pete Guither highlighted a statutory provision that arguably prohibits the head of the ONDCP from acknowledging the truth about marijuana or any other currently illegal drug. The Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 says the drug czar shall "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a [Schedule I] substance" that "has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration." If the drug czar admitted that marijuana has medical utility, Guither argues, he would be conceding that it does not meet the criteria for Schedule I (completely prohibited) substances and thereby violating his statutory responsibilities.

I think Kerlikowske may have a bit more leeway to tell the truth on this subject. The relevant criterion for a Schedule I drug is that it has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Depending on how he defines "accepted," Kerlikowske could concede the undeniable fact that cannabinoids are therapeutically effective without necessarily implying that marijuana should be reclassified. If "accepted" means "accepted by the FDA," for example, any Schedule I substance meets this criterion by definition; the decision to put a drug in that category prevents it from being an accepted medicine.

Still, Guither's general point is worth keeping in mind the next time a whopper passes Kerlikowske's lips or he disappoints reformers in some other way. The statute defining his duties demands that he do whatever is necessary, including lying, to maintain the status quo.