The Polotics of Pot
The Bush administration's habit of politicizing its scientific agencies was on display again last week when the Food and Drug Administration, for no compelling reason, unexpectedly issued a brief, poorly documented statement disputing the therapeutic value of marijuana. The statement was described as a response to numerous inquiries from Capitol Hill, but its likely intent was to buttress a crackdown on people who smoke marijuana for medical purposes and to counteract state efforts to legalize the practice. Ordinarily, when the FDA addresses a thorny issue, it convenes a panel of experts who wade through the latest evidence and then render an opinion as to whether a substance is safe and effective. This time the agency simply issued a skimpy one- page statement asserting that "no sound scientific studies" supported the medical use of marijuana. That assertion is based on an evaluation by federal agencies in 2001 that justified the government's decision to tightly regulate marijuana. But it appears to flout the spirit of a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences. The institute was appropriately cautious in its endorsement of marijuana. It said the active ingredients of marijuana appeared useful for treating pain, nausea and the severe weight loss associated with AIDS. It warned that these potential benefits were undermined by inhaling smoke that is more toxic than tobacco smoke. So marijuana smoking should be limited, it said, to those who are terminally ill or don't respond to other therapies. Yet the FDA statement does not allow even that much leeway. It argues that state laws permitting the smoking of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation are inconsistent with ensuring that all medications undergo rigorous scrutiny in the drug approval process. That seems disingenuous. The government is actively discouraging relevant research, according to scientists quoted in Friday's New York Times. It's obviously easier and safer to issue a dismissive statement than to back research that might undermine the administration's inflexible opposition to the medical use of marijuana.