It’s hard to believe marijuana was once not only legal in the United States, but an accepted pharmaceutical drug. A little more than 150 years ago, W. B. O’Shaughnessy, at the Medical College of Calcutta, found the leafy green plant helped alleviate pain and relax muscles. Over the next half a century, doctors worldwide prescribed the drug for ailments such as tetanus, asthma and labor pains.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century. Although eight states, including Alaska, Arizona and California, have passed laws legalizing the use of marijuana for patients with their doctor’s recommendation, federal law prohibits the prescription of pot for medical purposes. Small but vocal groups of doctors, scientists and citizens are working to change the national policy.
“(In America, marijuana) is talked about in almost a mythological way,” said Paul Armentano, spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that supports the rights of adults to responsibly use marijuana – both for personal and medical use. “The debate regarding medical marijuana rarely focuses on the science, but on years of negative stereotypes.”
America’s troubled relationship with marijuana dates back to the 1920s, when the plant gained popularity as a recreational drug. To counteract the trend, the government passed legislation to limit recreational use. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, though purportedly intended to tax marijuana, actually outlined strict penalties for anyone possessing, growing, selling or prescribing the drug.
The American Medical Association opposed the legislation. It told Congress “the obvious purpose of and effect of this bill is to impose so many restrictions on the medicinal use (of cannabis) as to prevent such use altogether … to deprive the public of the benefits of a drug that on further research may prove to be of substantial benefit.”
The government simultaneously launched what Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard University called a “disinformation campaign.”
In an article in the International Journal of Drug Policy, Dr. Grinspoon said, “under pressure from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of to the present Drug Enforcement Administration, the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 1945 a vehemently anti-marijuana editorial, which signaled a sea of changes in the attitude of doctors toward this drug.”
Armentano faults Congress, which he said “lags far behind public support for the issue.”
A public opinion poll conducted in October 2002 by CNN/Time magazine concluded 80 percent of Americans believe adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it.
However, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which determines White House drug policy, said, “U.S. policy remains that marijuana should not be used for medical purposes, and ONDCP does not support the use of marijuana for any purposes, including medical.” Reasons include that cannabis has no medical value and that other legal pharmaceuticals are more effective.
The ONDCP does, however, recommend Marinol, a marijuana-based medicine in the form of a pill that is currently available for anyone with a doctor’s prescription.
In the eight states that have passed legislation to allow medical marijuana, Armentano said the federal government usually avoids stepping over state boundaries. However, there has been a number of high-profile cases in which the Drug Enforcement Agency prosecuted medical marijuana users or growers.
Last year, the DEA raided a marijuana growers cooperative, a third-party organization that provides marijuana to approved patients. Those involved are currently standing trial in federal courts.
In contrast to U.S. policy, Britain is close to legalizing medical marijuana and has commissioned government studies of its therapeutic use and allowed a private pharmaceutical company to research and develop a cannabis-based medicine.
Cultural differences are part of the conflicting American and British policies, Armentano said.
“Leaders in Europe are more willing to look at marijuana as coming up with the best societal policy,” Armentano said. “In this country we have taken the tactic of denying that medical marijuana has any value and stopping research.”
Ethan Russo, a neurological doctor and editor of The Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, said the research of marijuana for therapeutic use is under-funded and often ignored by the federal government.
Russo said a National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine report presented to Congress in 1999 concluded, “cannabinoids are an interesting group of compounds with potentially far-reaching therapeutic applications.”
Russo said the two-year study had no effect on the government’s
“What Congress did with that was ignore it and come out with a statement that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive drug,” he said. “Who is right? The scientists that studied it or the politicians who are expressing an opinion based on their politics and policies?”
Russo said one reason for the lack of therapeutic studies is the government’s control over the nation’s cannabis, which allows officials to decide who conducts which studies. Even within the medical community, he said, there is a lot of prejudice and ignorance.
“The National Institute on Drug Abuse funds the majority of the world’s drug research, but only a fraction of that is therapeutic studies,” Russo said. “The rest is to prove marijuana to be harmful.”
As far as adverse effects of marijuana go, Russo said users do experience a loss of short-term memory.
“The only thing that has been demonstrated is short-term memory (loss), but nothing that is permanent,” he said.
One argument against marijuana is that it contains high levels of tar and nicotine. Another is that new strains of marijuana, often from Canada, are more potent and, therefore, more dangerous. But, Russo said, both arguments ignore that, in a therapeutic context, more potent marijuana means smoking less.
“In general, like a lot of things, you prefer a more potent drug (of) which you use less,” he said. “But the government gives us the idea that more potent is more dangerous.”
Another key element of fight to legalize medicinal marijuana, Armentano said, is distinguishing itself from the campaign to legalize the drug for recreational purposes.
“The two issues are separate. Each needs to stand on its own merit,” Armentano said. “If some people believe that marijuana should be legalized for recreational use, that should have no bearing on the science that says that medicinal marijuana has a clear medical use.”