For the Obama Administration, Conceding Marijuana's Medical Potential Does Not Mean Rethinking the Federal Ban


The Raw Story's Stephen Webster jumps on drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's response to a "We the People" petition urging the federal govenment to let veterans use marijuana as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:

Gil Kerlikowske, President Barack Obama's drug czar, claimed recently that the White House is "interested in the potential marijuana may have" in medicine—but in an odd feint, he also insisted that the drug war's Nixon-era prohibition policies are "based on science and research, not ideology or politics."

Although Webster seems to consider "Kerlikowske's admission" new and significant, the quote is actually from an October 2011 petition response that the drug czar appended to the new one. In any case, it does not signal a change in policy, or even in rhetoric. The Obama administration's official position on medical marijuana is the same as it has always been, and it is essentially unchanged from the positions taken by the Clinton and Bush administrations: We are open to the possibility that cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals might one day be approved by the FDA, after their developers jump through the usual regulatory hoops, including double-blind clinical trials. But we don't think cannabis should be exempt from this approval process, and we don't think smoking plants is good medicine. Kerlikowske's "odd feint"—eschewing "ideology or politics" in favor of "science and research"—is based on the complaint that medical marijuana advocates are demanding special treatment for their favorite plant.

Kerlikowske's predecessors drew the same distinction between smoked marijuana and FDA-approved pharmaceuticals. "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed," Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey declared back in 1996, leaving the door open to other kinds of cannabis-based medicine (although McCaffrey, like Kerlikowske, was not always so careful). A few years ago, McCaffrey said he has always been "100 percent for…medical use of marijuana, THC, or cannabinoids." Bush administration drug czar John Walters put it this way in 2007:

We believe that if there are elements of marijuana that can be applied to modern medicine, they should undergo the same FDA-approval process any other medicine goes through to make sure it's safe and effective. In absence of that approval, the Federal position is clear: the smoked form of medical marijuana is against Federal law and we will continue to enforce the law. 

This position is misleading in some important ways, but there is an element of truth to it. It's true that modern medicine tends to frown on whole plants, preferring isolated chemicals, and that new drugs cannot be legally introduced in this country without years of rigorous testing. The FDA did approve a sort of marijuana-based medicine, synthetic THC capsules (Marinol), back in 1985, and it may be on the verge of approving another: Sativex, an oral cannabis extract spray. Then again, marijuana, which has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, is not exactly a new drug, and its safety is by now established well enough that the demand for additional testing, which would be prohibitively expensive for an unpatentable plant species (though not for medicines derived from it), seems obstructionist. Indeed, the government has used its monopoly on the legal supply of marijuana to block research even while proclaiming its commitment to sound science. And as Webster points out, that objective, just-the-facts pose is belied by the Obama administration's continued refusal to remove marijuana from Schedule I, a category supposedly reserved for substances with a high abuse potential that have no medical uses and cannot be consumed safely even under a doctor's supervision.

Although that classification dates from the "Nixon era," as Webster says, the federal ban on marijuana was imposed long before the Controlled Substances Act. When Congress was on the verge of approving the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned the plant under the guise of taxation (an excuse for meddling that seems to be coming back into style), a representative of the American Medical Association unsuccessfully urged legislators to make an exception for medicinal use. Nowadays the same organization wants the government to reconsider marijuana's Schedule I status. But there is no reason to think it will, no matter how many times the drug czar concedes the medical potential of cannabinoids.

[Thanks to NORML's Paul Armentano for the tip.]