The Case Against Medical Marijuana

medical mariuanaLast Wednesday, the governors of Washington and Rhode Island convened a press conference calling on the federal government to reclassify marijuana so as to acknowledge its medical value and allow its use, in their words, “for treatment—prescribed by doctors and filled by pharmacists.”

Houston, we have a problem. Call it bad staff work or just an easy way for Governors Lincoln Chafee (D-RI) and Chris Gregoire (I-WA) to pass the buck to the Feds and dodge a highly volatile issue, but federal rescheduling will not do any of the things they are calling for. A few facts to consider: First, rescheduling marijuana would not allow doctors to prescribe the drug, nor would it make it okay for pharmacists to dispense the drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires drugs to go through a rigorous safety and efficacy approval process before allowing any prescriptions to be written. Second—and this is a big one—marijuana-derived medications have already been rescheduled. Finally, it’s worth noting that medical associations around the world agree that any medicine should be determined in the lab by the scientific process, not the ballot box.

Medical marijuana is a sticky subject, to be sure. No one wants to see their loved ones suffer needlessly, and there is a good case to be made that federal law enforcement should focus its limited resources on major drug producers and distributors.

We all know that smoked marijuana is not medicine, and it is not based on science. In fact, anyone living with smoked medical marijuana in their state knows that it has turned into a sad joke.

But as recently as this past summer, the FDA ruled that raw marijuana—which contains hundreds of unknown components—did not meet its general standards of safety and efficacy. And the drug failed an exhaustive eight-factor scientific analysis that examined hundreds of studies on the plant’s health effects. The FDA’s position has also been affirmed by independent scientific bodies like the National Academies of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM), which famously determined that “there is little future in smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication.”

This does not mean that marijuana has no medicinal value. Indeed, the FDA has determined that some elements found in marijuana are helpful to seriously ill patients, and the IOM also concluded that “if there is any future for marijuana as a medicine, it lies in its isolated components…” Some of those components—like Marinol and Cesamet—are available to be prescribed today (though they aren’t as popular as you might think—doctors generally find non-marijuana medications more effective for many conditions). But we don’t smoke opium to reap the benefits of morphine, nor do we chew willow bark to receive the effects of aspirin. Similarly, we should not have to smoke marijuana to get potential therapeutic effects from its components.

Does that mean that our work investigating marijuana’s components as a medicine is done? Of course not. Researchers are investigating other safe delivery methods for these types of medications, as well as the possible medical value of other elements within marijuana that we are just learning about. The National Institutes of Health funds a number of these studies. Research into how components of marijuana may affect our brains and bodies is an exciting area of science. Does marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug stop this research from happening? No. Could the Feds speed up the approval process for safe, marijuana-based medications and ensure that our scientific resources are adequately allocated? Of course, and I hope they will. Many of us who follow this area of science are excited about these drugs coming down the FDA pipeline. One such product is called Sativex, a mouth-spray containing two active components of the marijuana plant and already approved in several countries around the world.

But smoked marijuana is not medicine, and it is not based on science. Anyone living with smoked medical marijuana in their state knows that it has turned into a sad joke. A recent study found that the average “patient” was a 32-year-old white male with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and no history of a life-threatening disease. Further studies have shown that very few of those who sought a recommendation for the drug had cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis. We are also beginning to see a link between medical marijuana and increased drug use, according to a few recent, exhaustive studies.

So what explains this rather bizarre (and factually inaccurate) appeal by these two otherwise sensible governors? Politics. These officials, and many others, find themselves in a difficult spot—caught between laws that were intended to allow the limited use of marijuana for (ostensible) medical purposes and the reality of what that means when these laws are actually implemented—the headache of “dispensaries”, increased drug use that results from rampant distribution of the drug, and a federal government determined to uphold  existing law.

It’s not an envious position to be in, but it would make a whole lot of sense if these governors were taking their cues from the science and advocating for, say, expedited approval of a marijuana-derived drug like Sativex, which is not smoked and has a standard dose. Advocating for a policy that is impossible to implement and, more importantly, does not solve their conundrum in the first place diverts away from the real, complicated issues at hand. And it helps no one in the end.

Kevin A. Sabet
The Fix 


  1. dusty says

    A better idea is: Decriminalize marijuana and let people grow their own and smoke it, put it in brownies, or other wise ingest it as they see fit. The author of this article is not credible in what he says because he makes his living by attacking marijuana and supporting big pharma who want to profit off marijuana if they can get a strong hold on it so they can make the billions that now goes to the drug cartels and the much smaller amount that goes to medical marijuana dispensaries. The other side is the police at all levels of the US enforcement apparatus that receive a lot of money from the national, state and local budgets to suppress marijuana and therefore have a vested interest in maintaining illegal drugs as illegal.

    Here is how dubious is the war on the evil weed. I was told in the 60s and 70s that masturbation would make a person go blind and marijuana would make them an addict and I remember many heavy duty tokers from that era and they are neither blind nor addicts. At least Kevin Sabet didn’t try to throw up the smoke screen of addiction and I have to give him credit for that. Still, just like the drug cartel leaders he is making his money off the drug market at the “Center for Substance Abuse Solutions”, getting paid to sow anti-marijuana propoganda that they hope will profit big pharma when big pharma controls the marijuana trade.

    Nah, decriminalizing marijuana and letting people grow their own is the only good solution — why should marijuana be taxed and ran as a profit business by pharmas? Let’s cut all the middle men and women out of the business by destroying marijuana as a market commodity.

    One last thing, the specious argument that marijuana use may lead to other drug abuse is no more valid than saying that children nursed on mother’s mile or baby formula leads to drug abuse. In fact almost every person that I have ever met who smoked marijuana also either was breast fed or was fed baby formula — maybe we ought to be outlawing nipples and baby food companies — it is as logical as continuing the prohibition on marijuana — a prohibition that is unenforceable anyway.

    Let’s all right in and have some fun with the subject of marijuana, medical or not.

    • Jack says

      C’mon, you know pot is addictive. Get real. Sure, decriminalization is probably a good idea, given that weed is not the worst drug out there. Maybe it doesn’t lead to other drug use, but permissive attitudes in society DO lead to more drug use, and legalizing pot is absolutely a step along that path. While we’re being frank, we should also acknowledge that any drug can play a role in social and economic oppression. Can’t find a job? Hate your work? Whatever, just smoke a joint and you’ll be willing to accept your inability to make changes that could improve your life.

      We all know people who are addicted to pot, and most of them are going to die of lung disease or some other nasty cancer due to the poisons they’re sucking into their bodies. Can we stop them? Probably not. But we can certainly try to stop others from tumbling down that lonely destructive road. In fact, our youth might be less willing to start smoking pot if they can see the early aging and health impacts that potheads experience.

      So let’s at least be honest. Pot is probably deadlier than alcohol, but we might want to accept its use in society anyway, just because we really can’t afford to prevent people from poisoning themselves. We could tax the heck out of it, and use the money to prevent abuse and addiction of others. Meanwhile, we have an entire generation that’s already lost to the drug. Let’s let them gracefully subside into their pot-induced nirvana and hope like heck that the next generation doesn’t succumb to this opiate of the masses that makes addicts accept their sorry lot in life.

      • dusty says

        Friend, I was on a four county drug abuse council that included representatives of the police departments and sheriffs responsible for administering justice as well as social workers and health care workers including people from emergency wards. The police said that they found no evidence, nor has any other credible source that shows marijuana as addictive; habit forming yes but addictive no. Oh, alcohol on the other hand is definitely addictive and destroys brain cells as well as livers and other body parts etc often leading to dementia tremors.

        The police on the council said that they found many drunk drivers also used cigarettes, sometimes marijuana but more likely methamphetamine. Most of the officers said that drunks in comparison to marijuana users were more willing to fight and became combative while the ‘stoners” were laid back and didn’t want to hassle anyone. You might be surprised how many police officers drink and drive.

        Many people find speeding in their cars habit forming if not addictive and yet they still have licenses to fly, often even after causing terrible accidents. I would be willing to bet that speeding and/or drunk driving causes many more accidents than marijuana holding to percents of drivers in the categories, i.e. there are many more speeders than the other categories in all probability. What I am getting at is learning to think about things logically and think of proportions, etc. For a while MADD got some action around drunk driving but then people went right back to liquor is quicker and I still see wrecks and drunk drivers.

    • dusty says

      I have no quarrel with science but Kevin isn’t a scientist — he is a political policy wonk, some would say a hack.

  2. Marie says

    When will the government stop treating us all like dumb sheep that have to be “protected”. “In this Land-Of-Freedom!”
    Marijuana is not any bit more dangerous for our health than alcohol or cigarettes or prescription anxiety- or strong pain-killer drugs.
    They claim that increased Marijuana-use has increased car-accidents; but so has been the case with people under influence of prescription-drugs .
    Common sense is just strong laws about driving under influence of any of the above mind-altering chemicals. And no-sale of any mind-altering substance to minors. For when kids retreat in that stuff, instead of facing life the way it is, it often stagnates their mental-emotional development.
    By the way I have never been a user myself; neither use prescription-drugs. My mind is too precious .

  3. Alex says

    Whats up with all these elected officals trying to pretend that if they ignore medical marijuana that it won’t exist? Marijuana has been proven as one of the best medicines in the industry. They’re just using this government rhetoric BS because they want to keep it illegal to protect their special interests in pharmaceutical.. Follow the money.

  4. says

    That’s my read, too. If our society in general or the people of California want to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, we should change the law and make it so.

    But what we’re doing now is pretending that medical marijuana is just for people in serious pain when the real purpose is to make it available to anyone. It’s hawked openly on Venice Beach and the dispensaries are just updated head shops.

    If we want to truly make it available to serious pain sufferers, do it through drugstores, which are set up with trained staff, monitoring, and licensing.

    But we also need to address the failed War on Drugs, which has created a vast criminal enterprise out of pot smuggling and selling, just as Prohibition did with bootlegging.

    Addressing the failed War on Drugs argues for licensing, taxing, and monitoring marijuana sales the same way we do with wine and beer and liquor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *