Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for reasons that are far from clear, chose to enter the debate over medical marijuana with a thoroughly unscientific — one might even say anti-scientific — blanket denial that marijuana has any medical value at all.
Specifically, the grandiosely titled “Inter-Agency Advisory Regarding Claims That Smoked Marijuana Is a Medicine” referenced a “past examination” that “concluded that no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States, and no animal or human data supported the safety or efficacy of marijuana for general medical use.”
That is simply not true. As Scientific American magazine noted on its Web site the next day, the statement simply ignores “the existence of a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that marijuana was ‘moderately well-suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting.’”
The Institute of Medicine report, which was commissioned by the “drug czar” at the time, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and included a series of hearings around the country as well as a complete review of the scientific literature worldwide, summarized its conclusions as follows:
“Advances in cannabinoid science of the past 16 years have given rise to a wealth of new opportunities for the development of medically useful cannabinoid-based drugs. The accumulated data suggest a variety of indications, particularly for pain relief, antiemesis and appetite stimulation. For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy, and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication. The data are weaker for muscle spasticity but moderately promising. The least-promising categories are movement disorders, epilepsy and glaucoma. Animal data are moderately supportive of a potential for cannabinoids in the treatment of movement disorders and might eventually yield stronger encouragement.”
The Institute of Medicine report does say that “it does not follow from this that smoking marijuana is good medicine,” which is the only sentence Gen. McCaffrey ever quoted. That statement is followed, however, by noting that “patients who are currently suffering from debilitating conditions unrelieved by legally available drugs, and who might find relief with smoked marijuana, will find little comfort in a promise of a better drug 10 years from now.” Therefore, “Until a nonsmoked rapid-onset cannabinoid drug-delivery system becomes available, we acknowledge that there is no clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions that might be relieved by smoking marijuana, such as pain or AIDS wasting.”
The FDA statement was not preceded by any new studies or surveys of the literature, it was simply posted on the agency’s Web site. It represents a willful determination to ignore science and to buttress the harmful policy of marijuana prohibition. Politics over science. Sad.