Gadfly Online. Feature. Marijuana as Medicine.


Against this burgeoning grassroots movement stands the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which stubbornly refuses to move the drug out of Schedule 1 [see sidebar], and has challenged in federal court the medical marijuana defense allowed defendants in those states where decriminalization has been achieved.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), USC 8:11-12, classifies drugs, from Schedule 1 (prohibited) to 5 (freely available). Marijuana is in Schedule 1, which means it must meet all of the following criteria: unsafe, even under medical supervision; no accepted medical use; high potential for abuse.

Marijuana’s scheduling was challenged by the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and the resultant reclassification hearing ran from 1986-88. At the end of this exhaustive investigation, DEA administrative law judge Francis Young called marijuana "the safest therapeutically active substance known to man," and ordered it rescheduled.

The DEA appealed the ruling, its position was upheld in 1989 by a Court of Appeals, and there the matter stands.

The DEA has some powerful allies: the alcohol and tobacco lobbies, who fear eventual approval of recreational marijuana; paper pulp, cotton producing and other industrial enterprises threatened by the cultivation of hemp (which derives from cannabis plants); and pharmaceutical companies who don’t want a readily-available herb competing with their expensive products.

Drug companies’ concerns are probably well taken. Medical marijuana users testify to an efficacy exceeding that of prescription medications in a wide variety of conditions, including glaucoma, spasticity, nausea, and pain relief. Before prohibition began in 1937, marijuana derivatives were the most frequently-prescribed preparations in the national pharmacopeia. The American Medical Association hotly contested their elimination.

One comparison: for many chemotherapy patients needing an anti-nauseant, a few cents’ worth of homegrown pot could replace Marinol (synthetic marijuana), selling for $800/100 capsules, or Zofran, which costs a stunning $145/day.

A major threat is obviously posed to these monopolies by something with no profit potential. But there may be more to the story. The pharmaceutical giants are probably aware that some smaller European companies have gotten the jump on them in several related areas. Netherlands-based HortaPharm, for example, has been patenting cannabis strains modified to provide specific active ingredients, while British GW Pharmaceuticals has been working on cannabis delivery systems that don’t involve smoking.

How long can this potent coalition hold out against the will of the people? As long as necessary, it would seem.

No one knows this better than Jon Gettman, a determined public policy activist who’s been grappling with the drug control bureacracy for years. Gettman contends that "the DEA is violating its own guidelines under the CSA by keeping marijuana in Schedule 1," and in 1995 he petitioned the agency (as any citizen may) to change its position.

While none of the three classification criteria is truly being met, Gettman chose to focus on just one of them. Attaching every reference in the scientific literature since the Young decision, Gettman pointed out that no formal study—from 19th century British efforts to the latest Institute of Medicine report—has ever stated that marijuana has a high abuse potential. "What then," he asked, "is the DEA’s justification for its scheduling decision?"

His weighty petition was referred to the Department of Health and Human Services for evaluation, and is still there. Department officials, prodded for an update in October, 2000, said that the review is in its final stages and the HHS recommendation will be forthcoming "in the near future."

In the meantime, patients seeking U.S. government help will have to wait, or move to states that have defied federal law and legitimized compassionate user programs.

Judging by Corinne Millet’s experience, they’d better not invest too much faith in the feds.

In 1990, Millet appeared as a sanctioned cannabis recipient in NORML’s first public presentation on the issue, a panel discussion broadcast nationally by CSPAN and attended by, among others, a number of law enforcement officials.

Shortly thereafter, Corinne was visited by DEA agents demanding to know whom she was peddling marijuana to. Her government shipments of the drug suddenly ceased. The distraught woman begged her doctor for assistance, and he in turn raised hell with those who were supposed to be supplying her medicine.

Well, she got it back. Six unmedicated weeks later.

But by then she had lost eighty percent of her peripheral vision.

For good.