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Legalize Medical Marijuana


Last week, voters in San Francisco passed an initiative prompting city officials to study the logistics of growing and dispensing medical marijuana to qualifying patients. Such a measure, approved in the birthplace of the Grateful Dead, psychedelic culture and the Summer of Love, probably isn't so surprising.

In reality, though, the concept of letting certain patients obtain medical marijuana has support in all corners of the country -- including Louisiana. As we reported in last week's cover story ("The Best Medicine?"), six state legislatures and three Louisiana governors approved medical-marijuana laws between the years 1978 and 1991 in our state Capitol -- which is a long way from Haight-Ashbury. But stringent federal controls on marijuana have discouraged Louisiana officials from activating laws they put on the books three times.

Louisiana is one of many states to recognize what the federal government refuses to admit: marijuana has therapeutic value for some patients. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that using marijuana has helped some people cope with -- if not survive -- debilitating illnesses; and that the drug is far less addictive, less powerful and less dangerous than many legally prescribed medications such as morphine, hydrocodone and other opiates.

No one disputes the fact that marijuana had been used as medicine in numerous cultures for centuries before the United States made it illegal 65 years ago. The driving force behind that legislation was Harry Anslinger, a Prohibition agent-turned-U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics. Anslinger's Congressional testimony against marijuana included such questionable "evidence" as: "Most [marijuana users] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music -- jazz and swing -- result [sic] from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others." (Anslinger relied in part on testimony from then-New Orleans district attorney Eugene Stanley.)

The American Medical Association (AMA) at the time challenged the bill, objecting to its authors preparing it in secret without consulting the AMA. "There are evidently potentialities in the drug that should not be shut off by adverse legislation," AMA legislative counsel Dr. William Woodward testified. "The medical profession and pharmacologists should be left to develop the use of this drug as they see fit." In an additional letter to Congress, Woodward wrote on behalf of the AMA that "the prevention of the use of the drug for medicinal purposes can accomplish no good end whatsoever." Despite the AMA's objections, Congress accepted Anslinger's insistence that marijuana caused "violence, insanity and death," and outlawed the herb in 1937.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug -- one that has no therapeutic value and is subject to the strictest degree of controls. As part of its refusal to reclassify marijuana, the DEA maintains that not enough research exists to support its therapeutic benefits. This stipulation creates a catch-22 for medical marijuana -- because the federal government simultaneously places far stricter guidelines on marijuana research than it does on other types of pharmaceutical studies. Any researcher wishing to conduct marijuana studies must obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which controls the only legally grown supply of marijuana in the United States. By comparison, researchers developing new pharmaceuticals are required by law only to have their protocols approved by the FDA and an institutional review board.

Medical-marijuana opponents argue that letting doctors prescribe pot would increase its availability on the streets -- an argument that overlooks the fact that far more dangerous drugs are prescribed every day. State medical-marijuana laws, including Louisiana's, generally contain provisions to determine who is qualified to receive therapeutic marijuana and to screen out anyone trying to obtain the drug for recreational use. Louisiana's law had established a Marijuana Prescription Review Board to certify patients, physicians and pharmacies as eligible to participate in the state's medical-marijuana program. But because the program never got off the ground, the board was dissolved.

There is no disputing the fact that marijuana, like many substances, can be harmful. Yet, while a variety of prescription medications have caused overdose deaths, marijuana has no lethal levels. The FDA's own chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, noted this fact in a 1988 ruling when he advised the FDA to reclassify marijuana. But the FDA's top brass overruled his recommendation. Not surprisingly, one of the nation's biggest donors to elected officials -- the pharmaceutical industry -- vehemently opposes the federal approval of a medication that easily could be grown by smaller companies across America.

Three times, this state has demonstrated that it supports medical marijuana, and common sense and human empathy demand that we follow through. State lawmakers should resume work on putting Louisiana's inactive medical-marijuana law into effect. Louisiana's congressional delegation should support changing federal research guidelines to make it easier for scientists to conduct clinical trials. Louisiana at one time led the nation in its advocacy of marijuana for qualified patients. It's time to finish what we started.

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