Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Study Not the Evil Weed

The debate over the legality of medical marijuana was settled by Colorado voters back in the year 2000, when they wrote partial legalization, for medical purposes, into the state Constitution. But voters didn't and couldn't settle the question of whether medicinal marijuana actually helps people, and works as advertised -- something that opponents of legalization continue to raise doubts about.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans seem to think MMJ helps them in some way: thus the explosion of dispensaries and grow operations in states where it's legal (which include New Jersey, as of yesterday). Yet doubters and scoffers still abound, who believe this is all a massive scam, perpetrated by potheads who just want to get the law off their backs.

One major reason the science remains unsettled, and the debate rages on, is the federal government's "just say no" policy on the study of medical marijuana, spotlighted in this story in today's New York Times. The hurdles the feds have erected to MMJ-related research allow legalization opponents to continually raise doubts about efficacy even while blocking studies that might help settle the question.

Talk about a massive scam.

Here's an excerpt from the Times:

"Despite the Obama administration’s tacit support of more liberal state medical marijuana laws, the federal government still discourages research into the medicinal uses of smoked marijuana. That may be one reason that — even though some patients swear by it — there is no good scientific evidence that legalizing marijuana’s use provides any benefits over current therapies.

Lyle E. Craker, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Massachusetts, has been trying to get permission from federal authorities for nearly nine years to grow a supply of the plant that he could study and provide to researchers for clinical trials.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration — more concerned about abuse than potential benefits — has refused, even after the agency’s own administrative law judge ruled in 2007 that Dr. Craker’s application should be approved, and even after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March ended the Bush administration’s policy of raiding dispensers of medical marijuana that comply with state laws.

“All I want to be able to do is grow it so that it can be tested,” Dr. Craker said in comments echoed by other researchers.

Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply and for which the government requires a special scientific review.

“The more it becomes clear to people that the federal government is blocking these studies, the more people are willing to defect by using politics instead of science to legalize medicinal uses at the state level,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of a nonprofit group dedicated to researching psychedelics for medical uses."

How the scientific debate plays out is of secondary importance to me, since I'm of the school that says adults should be free to use whatever herbal, pharmaceutical or spiritual remedies they choose, as long as they educate themselves about (and take responsibility for) any adverse consequences, and as long as they harm no one else in the process. I know people who swear by vitamins, others who turn to herbal elixirs, still others who dance around trees during the Winter Solstice, searching for health and happiness. Some sit near light boxes to fight Seasonal Affective Disorder. I once knew a chiropractor who prescribed coffee ground enemas as part of a "cleansing program."

There's a lot of quackery out there; a lot of snake oil, in different packages, being sold, with and without a doctor's precription. There's a lot of searching for answers, and cures, for our physical and psychological maladies. I just happen to believe that government in a free society should play a minor role in policing such activities. If some Americans are turning to medicinal marijuana for comfort, what business is it of mine, or of government, to tell them they can't -- or to tell them that this really doesn't work, even though they think it does?

That's a bigger question for me than whether the science is settled.

But as long as critics of medical marijuana continue to hang their objections on science, it's only right that they work to facilitate, not block, research in the field. The federal government supports research on virtually everything else, from the mating habits of fruit bats to the childhood origins of road rage, yet it enforces a virtual ban on MMJ-related research.

What, except for stubborn political prejudice, explains this stupid double standard?

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