“The 4/20 Mistake”—by Bic Scripto
On April 20, a day with a certain symbolic importance to cannabis smokers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued yet another in a series of volleys against advocates for medical marijuana. The lede to the press release is a masterstroke of understatement: “Claims have been advanced asserting smoked marijuana has a value in treating various medical conditions. Some have argued that herbal marijuana is a safe and effective medication and that it should be made available to people who suffer from a number of ailments upon a doctor’s recommendation, even though it is not an approved drug.” Some have argued this, yes. Millions have made the argument anecdotally, and have been doing so for such a long time that, in 2000, Presidential Candidates Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader both offered at least conditional support for medical marijuana. In doing so, they echoed logic put forth in a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine, a subsidiary of the National Academy of Sciences, which asserted that “the logical categories for the medical use of marijuana are not based on particular diseases but on symptoms–such as nausea, appetite loss, or chronic pain–each of which can be caused by various diseases or even by treatments for diseases.” Marijuana, in other words, treats the symptoms of the ailments, not the ailments itself. It functions now as it ever did — as a pallative. And used responsibly, it can help people. Consider the case of Rick Brookhiser, former National Review Editor and cancer survivor, as he explained it in front of Congress in 1996: “In 1992 I got testicular cancer. The treatment was straightforward — an operation, followed by a rather harsh form of chemotherapy. Any chemotherapy is harsh because all chemotherapy is poison. You’re dumping poison into your bloodstream, killing millions of cells, in order to kill the thousands of malignant cells which will not recover. Because it is poison, the body wants to get rid of it. That’s why chemotherapy causes nausea. To deal with this, I took the latest anti-nausea drugs and I also did self-hypnosis and mental imaging. These all worked — up to a point. But beyond that point, I needed extra help and so I smoked marijuana..” Mr. Brookhiser’s words, and those of millions like him who have derived benefits from the demon weed, were unheeded by the FDA, which chose yet again to blithely ignore the mounting anecdotal evidence that marijuana has salutary effects that cannot be synthesized in a laboratory. As their “4/20” press release indicated, the organization barely is even considering the question of marijuana’s efficacy. “A past evaluation by several Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), 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.” Which past evaluation? The local television news outlets that picked up the press release and ran with it blindly didn’t bother to investigate. The logic of the press release is not the kind of thing one expects in a non-totalitarian society. There are critics of the Administration who see the President’s unevolving policy regarding medical marijuana as symptomatic of a larger malaise in the ranks. Those naysayers will not be mollified by this press release. The FDA must, for the sake of its perceived integrity, come clean on this issue. If the FDA can make a case against medical marijuana, it should do so out in the open, presenting its evidence with the dignity and prominence it deserves. Certainly, millions who have relied on marijuana to deal with health crises ranging from eating disorders to cancer would be interested in reviewing the mounting scientific evidence that directly contradicts their own experience. And as Mr. Brookhiser said in front of Congress, more Americans will face that unhappy experience — being failed by conventional medicine, and reduced to risking legal sanctions in a desperate bid for health. “God forbid that anyone in this room should ever need chemotherapy, but statistics tell us that many of us will. Let me assure you that whatever you think now, or however you vote, if that moment comes to you, you will turn to marijuana.” FDA, the ball is in your court.