DEA stresses that marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, but DEA rejected the findings of both the National Commission on Marijuana, and its own Senior Administrative Judge, that Schedule 1 is not appropriate. (Schedule 1 means no accepted medical use, high potential for use, and inability to be used safely. Marijuana meets none of these conditions, while tobacco meets all three--but Congress exempted tobacco and alcohol from the drug schedules.)
DEA also argues that marijuana is not FDA-approved. While the FDA review procedure is vital for new drugs, whose effects on humans are unknown, many older medicines have not been subjected to it. These include, for example, aspirin and morphine, because they--like marijuana--were known and accepted for medical use before the FDA existed.
The modern case for medical marijuana rests on thousands of published articles in scientific and medical journals, and the personal testimony of tens of thousands of patients, many of whom tried it reluctantly, after a doctor or nurse recommended it. Some of their stories--such as that of tv personality Montel Williams--are incredibly moving.
The evidence is overwhelming for marijuana's ability to relieve pain (especially neuropathic pain), nausea (especially that caused by chemotherapy), and muscle spasms. For these conditions, the fact that marijuana usually is smoked is an advantage because it means that the effects can be felt within seconds and the patient can stop as soon as relief is obtained--usually before intoxication starts. Unlike tobacco, the risks from smoking marijuana appear to be quite small--and patients who want to avoid them can use a vaporizer or ingest it orally.
Marijuana also helps with many other conditions, from glaucoma to PTSD (watch the video), and there are even hints that it might slow the progress of cancer and Alzheimer's Disease. The head of DC's Department of Health, Dr. Pierre Vigilance, gave a good summary of marijuana's medical benefits at the DC Council hearing in 2010.
One of the first medical groups to endorse medical marijuana was the Virginia Nurses Association in 1994, followed by the American Nurses Association and a number of other state associations. Other endorsers include the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association, and the National Cancer Institute, while the AMA says that its Schedule 1 status should be reviewed.
In addition to DC, 18 states have approved medical marijuana, as have Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, DEA continues to raid medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal--and the frequency of raids has doubled under President Obama.
Medical marijuana also has backing from religious groups, including the United Methodist Church, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, according to the Washington Post of 6/26/04. (The vote by the Methodist General Board was 877-19 in favor!)
It's time for compassion and common sense to prevail. As the New England Journal of Medicine said in a 1997 editorial, the "federal policy that prohibits physicians from alleviating suffering by prescribing marijuana for seriously ill patients is misguided, heavy-handed, and inhumane."
Next: a look at DC's medical marijuana program