The Bush administration is now held in such contempt that skeptical news stories greeted the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement that “no scientific studies” justify using marijuana for medicine.
Once again, the White House allowed right wing politics to dictate scientific conclusions. The government statement is “driven more by ideology than by science,” Dr. Jerry Avorn, a Harvard Medical School professor, said in belittling the “pronouncement.”
Scientific American echoed that view, arguing that the administration’s conclusions “demonstrated that politics had trumped science” and angrily inquiring, “How many times in recent years have science reporters had to write some version of that sentence?”
Undoubtedly, red-meat Republicans are delighted that the FDA statement offers no compromise. It is a wedge issue separating fervent anti-drug Republicans from the Democrats. The issue makes some Democrats uncomfortable and inarticulate. As is happening over and over again, the Democratic Party’s base is likely to come out on this far more liberal than its leaders.
The FDA’s argument that no scientific studies exist to back marijuana’s medical use is intended to infuriate. The federal government, especially the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only solicits studies showing the negative effects of illicit drugs. Federal rules prevent researchers from growing or obtaining high quality marijuana. One study was conducted with state funds, but a frustrated Dr. Donald Abrams in San Francisco says publishing the study is beset with difficulties. The FDA statement is disingenuous.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Science can create consensus and respond to public anxiety. The National Academy of Science has that mission. In 1999, its Institute of Medicine offered a carefully balanced assessment noting the well known benefits of marijuana for patients suffering from AIDS wasting or a loss of appetite from chemotherapy that must be weighed against the harms caused by dangerous particles in marijuana smoke. The Institute recommended marijuana for seriously ill persons.
But the federal government “loves to ignore our report,” Dr. John Benson of the University of Nebraska Medical Center told The New York Times. “They would rather it never happened.”
Great Britain has its committee of scientists, The Advisory Council on The Misuse of Drugs. In 2002, it recommended that marijuana be downgraded to the least harmful category of illegal drugs. The recommendation enjoyed the support of chiefs of police across that nation. This conclusion made it difficult to arrest anyone for possession. In the United States, marijuana is placed in the class of the most dangerous of the illicit drugs.
When the Dutch presented a study linking marijuana to mental illness including schizophrenia, depression, and suicide, the U.S. and Great Britain responded in markedly different ways. The United States seized on the study to start yet another campaign about the dangers of marijuana—an approach that is ineffective because so many people smoke marijuana that everyone knows you won’t lose your mind automatically if you inhale.
But a study associating any substance with mental illness deserves careful consideration. The British asked its Advisory Council to examine the study and determine if marijuana still belonged in the class of least harmful drugs.
In December 2005, the Advisory Council concluded that the Dutch study gave no cause for undue alarm. Yes marijuana is dangerous and has risks, but it is still the least dangerous of the commonly used illicit drugs. Typical of that study’s findings: “The most recent data are not, overall, persuasive of a causal association between cannabis use and the development of depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety. Although some investigators have observed statistically significant associations, there is a lack of consistency between the results of studies and even those with positive findings show only small effects.”
While the American reaction was to spread fear and justify the use of the criminal law; the British found the Dutch study “not persuasive.” At one and the same time, British scientists reaffirmed policy on the categorization of marijuana and provided information to parents and users that could help them make informed decisions. The scientific evidence dictated the law enforcement policy and the information provided to drug users. This should be so unremarkable that it doesn’t need to be mentioned.
But that is not the situation in the United States. New York City police pursue a major marijuana enforcement effort, making 36,179 arrests last year. The smoking of marijuana in a nightclub has led the police to shut clubs down for entire weekends. Individuals who are arrested are fingerprinted and subjected to detention until their court arraignment. In Great Britain, a user will receive a warning—a caution as it is called there.
The difference of course is that the British are letting science inform their drug policy, while the United States including the City of New York, are engaged in the futile campaign for a drug-free society. It is time for the City Council to make sense out of this confusion, and the injustices that occur when marijuana laws are aggressively enforced.