Attacking the federal government’s threat to crack down on California and Arizona doctors who recommend marijuana to sick patients, a leading medical journal said the policy is “foolish,” “hypocritical” and “inhumane.”
The 800-word screed in today’s New England Journal of Medicine represents a dramatic endorsement by a respected mainstream medical authority of pot’s clinical merits.
In contrast, the American Medical Association has urged doctors not to recommend that patients smoke marijuana because the practice goes against federal law.
In the editorial, Dr. Jerome Kassirer, the journal’s editor-in-chief, urged the U.S. government to change marijuana’s classification from so-called Schedule 1, meaning it is a drug of abuse with no clinical value, to Schedule 2, which includes drugs such as morphine that are medically useful despite being potentially addictive.
That change would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana without fear of being hunted by federal drug agents - a scenario envisioned by some in California and Arizona despite November ballot measures making pot available to certifiably sick people. After the elections, federal officials threatened to discipline doctors in those states who recommended pot to patients.
“Whatever their reasons, federal officials are out of step with the public,” Kassirer wrote.
The central conflict, he said, is “between the rights of those at death’s door and the absolute power of bureaucrats whose decisions are based more on reflexive ideology and political correctness than on compassion.”
U.S. marijuana policy also came under fire Wednesday in San Francisco, where nine doctors released a review of published studies on marijuana’s use in the treatment of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. The group said it found 75 studies since 1970 that discovered a medical benefit.
“They all come to the same conclusion: Marijuana is a safe and effective medicine,” said attorney Kevin Zeese, who authored the report for Common Sense for Drug Policy, a Virginia group.
Opponents of medicalizing marijuana decried the journal editorial. The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, headed by drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general, said in a statement that officials “respectfully disagree with the proposition that marijuana should be available for medical purposes now.”
The officials “have no bias against any drug that meets established and proven scientific standards,” he said, adding that “smoke is not a medicine” and “other treatments have been deemed safer and more effective than a psychoactive burning carcinogen self-induced through one’s throat.”
California Attorney General Dan Lungren, who has struggled against the new law, said the medical journal’s call for a switch of marijuana to Schedule 2 status seems premature. “If there was scientific proof that it was medically efficacious, then it would be different,” said Lungren’s spokesman Steve Telliano.
Bill Zimmerman, political director of Americans for Medical Rights, the group that pushed through the California measure, said the journal editorial “is a complete repudiation of the federal government’s response to Proposition 215.” He said the editorial was part and parcel of a “rebellion by the medical community.”
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reported in today’s editions that a federal study that found no link between cancer and marijuana use was left on the shelf for 2-1/2 years.
The main active ingredient in marijuana failed to cause cancer, and may even have protected against malignancies, when given to laboratory animals in huge doses over long periods, according to the federal study.
The 126-page draft study, which undercuts federal officials’ contention that marijuana is carcinogenic, has never been published, though a panel of expert reviewers found in June 1994 that its scientific methods and conclusions were sound.
A spokesman for McCaffrey said his office was not aware of the National Toxicology Program study, which was first revealed this month by a newsletter called AIDS Treatment News.
The $2 million study is one of the largest efforts to determine if marijuana’s main active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, causes cancer in laboratory animals. It involved more than 35 researchers and 12 reviewers, and was overseen by experts from the FDA, the National Cancer Institute and other agencies.
“We found absolutely no evidence of cancer,” said John Bucher, the National Toxicology Program’s deputy director. In fact, animals that received THC had fewer cancers, possibly because they were leaner.
Bucher said the report’s publication was overdue. “We should have had it out sooner.”
But the American Cancer Society, which is officially neutral on the medical use of marijuana, believes there are legitimate safety questions. “There are data showing that marijuana is a risk factor for head and neck cancers,” said ACS official Dr. James Lowman.