Rx Blunt, Part 2: Government Suppresses Marijuana Research

Revolutionary Worker #922, September 7, 1997

In Part 1 of "RX Blunt" the RW looked at the fight over medical marijuana that has broken out in California since the passage of Proposition 215--the ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Opposition of the federal government to medical marijuana has resulted in the persecution of doctors, patients, growers, and medical marijuana clubs--and a "Catch-22" situation where seriously ill people and doctors are caught in a web of legal harassments. This cold-hearted opposition of the Clinton administration to medical marijuana reveals that the U.S. government is more concerned with perpetuating the so-called war on drugs--where busts for marijuana possession account for the vast majority of arrests--than they are with the health and lives of the people. And nowhere are the perverse priorities of the "war on drugs" clearer than in an examination of government opposition to scientific testing of medical marijuana.

The stories of people who have defied the law to relieve their suffering--and in some cases to save their lives--are powerful arguments for medical marijuana.

A Black activist in Los Angeles who suffers from sickle-cell anemia told the RW that for years she had been "a slave to the pharmaceutical industry." To relieve her symptoms, she had to go to the VA Hospital for morphine shots every two days. The highly addictive morphine reduced her to being "a legal junkie," and she told the RW that this debilitating treatment is standard for sickle-cell sufferers. Once she began to treat her illness with marijuana instead of addictive painkillers, she was able to free herself from that dependency. She has been arrested twice for growing marijuana for her medical treatment in her backyard. "We can't wait for doctors and scientists to do regulations," she said, "We can cure ourselves. People with sickle-cell are Black and this is a war on us."

An article in the New York Times magazine by Michael Pollan, published after the passage of Prop 215, told the story of a San Francisco District Attorney who was dying from "wasting syndrome." This is a metabolic disorder connected with AIDS where patients lose fat and muscles tissue rapidly and literally waste away. The DA told Pollan, "I saw myself in the mirror literally coming back to life" as a result of treatment that included smoking marijuana to stimulate his appetite.

Like many AIDS patients, this man had to take 10 to 15 medications per day and confronted the dilemma that so many AIDS patients have to face: many of these drugs cause terrible nausea and suppress the appetite, yet they are supposed to be taken on a full stomach and missing doses can be a serious problem. The D.A. was lucky to get into a special experimental trial, which had been approved by the Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA)--where human growth hormones were being used to treat wasting syndrome. But on this special therapy he had to eat three meals a day if the therapy had any chance of working--because of the nausea and loss of appetite he could not eat. He tried Marinol--a synthetic form of THC (which is the active ingredient in marijuana) that is approved by the FDA. But the Marinol didn't work. It took too long to kick in, it was too strong and long-lasting. Instead of stimulating his appetite, the Marinol would leave him too stoned to eat and he would just fall asleep. When his doctor suggested marijuana, the DA tried it. A few drags before dinner made him hungry without getting stoned and he began very quickly gaining weight. The growth hormone put on the weight but it never would have worked if the marijuana had not given him back his appetite. The marijuana has literally saved his life.

Valerie Corral of Santa Cruz suffers from epilepsy--the result of an auto accident in 1973. Treatment offered by traditional doctors for her epilepsy was a regimen of drugs that did not completely relieve her grand mal seizures and left her in a drug stupor. She was basically disabled by powerful narcotics until her husband read about study being done on laboratory animals, using marijuana to control seizures. Valerie tried the marijuana and her seizures stopped. Now marijuana is the only drug she needs--she is able to control her seizures by smoking a little when she feels the "aura" which signals a seizure for many epileptics. Valerie was involved adding a provision in Prop 215 to allow people to grow their own marijuana--since quality control is a major issue for medical marijuana patients who need organically grown drugs that are not polluted or cut with other substances.

The use of medical marijuana by cancer patients has long been known as one of the few ways to relieve nausea and other debilitiating effects of chemo and radiation treatments. A 1990 survey that was written up in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reported that 54 percent of oncologists (cancer specialists) favored making medical marijuana available to cancer patients and that 44 percent of them had already broken the law by suggesting at least once that a patient obtain marijuana illegally.

A prominent breast cancer specialist in San Francisco told Michael Pollan that there are patients for whom marijuana is the only drug that will quell the nausea induced by chemotherapy--nausea that is so unbearable that people are often unable to continue treatment. While this doctor had a rather conservative view--considering marijuana a treatment of last resort--he was totally bewildered by the goverment's refusal to allow it to be used as medicine. "Marijuana is far less toxic than many of the medicines I prescribe to my cancer patients," he admitted.

What the Clinton administration has dismissed as "anecdotal evidence" is in reality the clinical experience of millions of people and their doctors. Fully one-third of the largely middle class voters who turned out to support Proposition 215 told pollsters they personally knew someone who used marijuana for medical reasons. But the government won't even allow doctors and medical researchers to conduct scientific studies and clinical trials to get a deeper scientific understanding. And in the wake of Prop 215 the government has actually made it harder for doctors to suggest marijuana to their patients--even threatening to take away their ability to practice medicine.

Standing in the Way of
Science and Health

The Clinton adminstration calls for "science not ideology" to settle the issue on the effectiveness of medical marijuana. At the December 30 news conference--where government officials threatened legal action against doctors who prescribe medical marijuana under the newly passed Prop 215 in California--Clinton Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey talked about the federal government's special responsiblity to ensure the safety and effectiveness of medicine. But the history and practice of the U.S. government shows that they are not interested in science, or medicine--when it comes to legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. They do not want to do anything which will disrupt the credibility of the massive "war on drugs" which has largely centered around marijuana. (See RW No. 920.)

Despite widespread experience of patients and doctors showing that marijuana is helpful, and even life-saving, for patients with many severe illnesses--including cancer, AIDS, sickle cell, epilepsy, and glaucoma--research into the medical benefits of marijuana in the U.S. is suppressed.

The few studies and experiments that have been approved indicate that there are important medical uses for marijuana. Authorized studies conducted by universities and medical researchers have shown that marijuana is useful for treating the nausea of cancer patients, eating disorders, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting among AIDS patients, muscle spasms for epileptics and MS sufferers, and lowering interocular eye pressure in glaucoma patients.

The clearest example of these perverse priorities of the U.S. government is their response to AIDS. The spread of AIDS coincided with the "war on drugs," announced by Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Ironically, while many people associate the "war on drugs" with spectacular cocaine busts, marijuana was the only drug mentioned by name in Reagan's speech, and marijuana busts have been the centerpiece of the war on drugs from the beginning. The numbers are staggering. Since 1995, more than 600,000 people have been arrested on marijuana charges. And the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that in thirty years from 1965 to 1995, ten million people have been busted for marijuana. More than 80 percent of these arrests were for possession for personal use and the balance were largely for cultivation (mainly small quantities for personal use) and the sale of small quantities. This "war on marijuana has been very clearly aimed at enforcing the "death of the '60s counter-culture" proclaimed by the U.S. ruling class in the 1980s. And for many people suffering from AIDS it meant pain and death.

Before AIDS, the FDA actually administered a small quiet medical marijuana program on a federally run farm in Mississippi. A small number of patients received regular shipments of pot from the federal government with a doctor's prescription. With the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, the FDA was flooded with applications for admission to the legal marijuana program. But rather than help people with AIDS by expanding the legal marijuana program, the government closed the program down.

In the midst of the war on drugs--as hundreds of thousands of people were being busted for marijuana (mostly for possession)--approving all these applications for medical marijuana would have raised serious questions about the war on drugs and why so much of the country's legal apparatus was devoted to busting people over a harmless drug. So while tens of thousands of people are suffering from AIDS, today there are only eight of the original patients in the federal marijuana program who can get legal marijuana cigarettes.

Instead the government pushed for the development of a chemical equivalent of marijuana by the pharmaceutical industry--Marinol. Marinol is a synthetic form of THC--the principal ingredient in marijuana--Marinol was initially approved by the FDA as an anti-nausea treatment for AIDS patients and then in 1993 it was approved as an appetite stimulant. Official voices, including in the medical establishment, often point to Marinol as a superior alternative to marijuana because it does not involve smoking. But in reality many, many patients who have tried Marinol find that it is too strong and does not work. Patients, like the DA mentioned earlier, get much better results from inhaled marijuana -- because they can adjust the number of puffs they inhale to treat their symptoms.

Many doctors would like to see clinical trials done to compare Marinol and smoked marijuana in stopping nausea. But the government will not allow these trials to go forward. One AIDS researcher at University of California, San Francisco, has been trying to set up trials on Marinol and smoked marijuana for four years. The FDA has approved his study but the DEA and the National Institute of Drug Abuse have refused to allow him access to the marijuana he needs to conduct the study!

Zero Tolerance for
Official Cruelty

While many highly addictive pain killers are approved for prescription and distribution, marijuana is classified by the federal government as a "Schedule 1" drug under the Controlled Substances Act--as a drug with high potential for abuse and one that is "unsafe for use under medical supervision." Even cocaine is not listed in this "Schedule 1" category of the most categorically banned drugs. And this classification actually flies in the face of evidence presented at government hearings on the medical uses of marijuana.

McCaffrey has called for a review of the literature on medical marijuana by the National Academy of Sciences, but previous government studies of this type have all concluded that marijuana had important medical uses--and these studies were suppressed. During the Carter administration, the results of a government-sponsored review of scientific literature supported the use of medical marijuana, but the results of the study were suppressed by the DEA. Again, in 1988, government hearings to change the status of marijuana to a Schedule II drug so that doctors could prescribe it resulted in a decision that marijuana should be available for medical purposes. Judge Francis Young, a federal DEA judge concluded that marijuana already had an "accepted medical use"--since it has been quietly and widely used by doctors for many years--and wrote in his decision that "marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." His decision was overruled by the DEA.

The stubborn refusal of the government to legalize medical marijuana--which has been defied by many progressive doctors for years--has now aroused anger in official medical circles as well. The New England Journal of Medicine wrote in January, "A Federal policy that prohibits physicians from alleviating suffering by prescribing marijuana for seriously ill patients is misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane." And in May, the California Medical Association, which did not support Prop 215, supported a bill to expand Prop 215 to include a medical-marijuana research center at the University of California to conduct clinical trials.

How many people have suffered and died because the U.S. government is standing in the way of their treatment?

The RW has long argued that the "war on drugs" was nothing but a war on the people --a punishing program to expand the police apparatus, which has criminalized a generation of youth and done nothing to help people overcome addiction to harmful drugs. But in the story of how the government has opposed and denied medical marijuana to the people, we see how they will stop at nothing to defend this war. And we suggest that such a political system deserves "zero tolerance" from the people.

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