Marijuana

RSS Feed for this category

The Drug Czar: Harm Reductionists, Treatment and Recovery Advocates Come Down on Different Sides of Rumored Ramstad Nomination

Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/jimramstad.jpg
Jim Ramstad
It may all be for naught. Ramstad himself has asked the Obama transition team to consider him to head SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a post where his appointment would arguably be less controversial. And President Bush's last-minute appointment Monday of current acting ONDCP deputy director Patrick Ward to replace outgoing drug czar John Walters only muddies the waters further.

While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.

"While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma. While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover."

Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.

A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.

"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."

And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.

The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."

The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.

Another Chance to Pressure Obama for Drug Policy Reform

Obama’s Change.gov website has created yet another feature for soliciting ideas from the public. This time it’s called the Citizen’s Briefing Book and you can vote on ideas or submit your own. The winning ideas will be printed out and handed to Barack Obama, so he can wipe his ass with them.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular idea is legalizing marijuana, yet again. This has really escalated to the point of absurdity and if the new administration hasn’t figured it out yet, this will continue until they either give us an intelligent response, or stop asking us to post ideas on their website.  

If, like me, you’re becoming cynical about this whole process, shake it off. Go to the website and vote. There is no way of measuring the impact of our repeated domination of Change.gov, but it is intuitively greater than zero. They wouldn’t keep doing this if it didn’t mean something to them.

Marijuana Law Reform No Longer a Political Liability, It’s a Political Opportunity

Paul Armentano’s latest piece at The Hill looks at evolving public attitudes about marijuana policy and the drug war. This is exactly how drug reform politics need to be framed from now on. It sounds like something I would write, probably because Paul is an awesome guy who’s always right about everything.

Cop Fired for Supporting Marijuana Decriminalization, Wins $815,000 Settlement

Which amendment was it again that says you can talk about stuff and have opinions on things?

A former Mountlake Terrace police sergeant whose views supporting the decriminalization of marijuana led to his dismissal in 2005 has won his job back and an $815,000 settlement from the city and Snohomish County.

Wender had publicly challenged and criticized the department and its commanders over the years on a number of issues. He is affiliated with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts organization of police officers who oppose the current tactics used by police to fight drug crimes. Among its other members are former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. [Seattle Times]

Wow, watching LEAP take the law-enforcement community by storm is a glorious thing to behold. It’s only going to get better.

DEA Blatantly Blocks Medical Marijuana Research

After stalling for two years, the DEA has conveniently chosen the final days of the Bush Administration to act on the Craker petition:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Bush administration struck a parting shot to legitimate science today as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused to end the unique government monopoly over the supply of marijuana available for Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research.  DEA's final ruling rejected the formal recommendation of DEA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mary Ellen Bittner, issued nearly two years ago following extensive legal hearings.

"With one foot out the door, the Bush administration has once again found time to undermine scientific freedom," said Allen Hopper, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project. "In stubbornly retaining the unique government monopoly over the supply of research marijuana over the objections of DEA's own administrative law judge, the Bush administration has effectively blocked the proper regulatory channels that would allow the drug to become a wholly legitimate prescription medication."

The DEA ruling constitutes a formal rejection of University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor Lyle Craker's petition, filed initially June 24, 2001, to cultivate research-grade marijuana for use by scientists in FDA-approved studies aimed at developing the drug as a legal, prescription medication. [ACLU]


Marijuana, unlike LSD, MDMA, heroin and cocaine, is almost impossible to obtain for research purposes and the DEA will do everything in its virtually infinite unchecked power to keep it that way. We all know why: they’re afraid of what the research will show.

The really disgusting part of all this is that the drug warriors actually go around claiming that we need more research before we can allow patients to use medical marijuana, all the while doing everything in their power right before our eyes to prevent that research from happening. There’s nothing secret about any of this. You can just watch them do it.

And the best part of all is that the DEA actually managed to churn out a 118-page monstrosity explaining their position, which can be summed up as follows:

Marijuana is bad and we are powerful, so f**k you. Furthermore…f**k you. And in conclusion, based on the aforementioned facts…f**k you.

I don’t know why it took them over a hundred pages to flesh it out. I guess they just love killing trees.

Religious Freedom: Arizona Supreme Court to Hear Case on Spiritual Right to Marijuana

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to take up a case where the appellant is arguing that he has a constitutionally-protected right to use and possess marijuana as a sacrament of his church. Both the trial judge and a state appeals court rejected that argument. (See the appeals court opinion here.)

Daniel Hardesty is a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based religion based on "neo-Zoroastrian tenets" that believes marijuana provides great spiritual benefits. He was convicted of marijuana and paraphernalia possession after being arrested in Yavapai County in 2005.

If the state high court rules in his favor, it would be the first time any Arizona court has recognized a religious defense for those who use marijuana. But it would not be the first time church members have been caught up in the courts. Last August, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance pleaded guilty to possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana after US District Court judge in New Mexico rejected their religious freedom claims.

But while no Arizona court has found a religious defense for marijuana use, courts there have found a religious defense for use of another drug: peyote. But the appeals court drew a distinction between peyote use and Hardesty's case. According to the appeals court, religious use of peyote by the Native American church amounted to use by a "discrete and well-defined group" and that prosecutors had never shown peyote was addictive or being used in harmful manners.

Expect oral arguments and then a ruling one of these months.

Marijuana: Arizona Supreme Court to Hear Case Asserting Religious Right to Use, Possess

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether there is a religious right to possess marijuana. The issue is being raised in Arizona v. Hardesty, in which Daniel Hardesty, a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based church that practices neo-Zoroastrian tenets and believes marijuana provides spiritual enlightenment and a connection to the divine mind.

Hardesty was arrested for marijuana possession after being stopped for a burned out headlight in 2005 and convicted of marijuana and paraphernalia possession in district court despite arguing that First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religion entitled him to use and possess marijuana as a sacrament in his church. Hardesty appealed, but lost in the appeals court as well.

In rejecting Hardesty's appeal, the appeals court held that while he has the right to believe what he wants, the First Amendment protections do not give him the right to commit criminal offenses for religious reasons. The appeals court also said the legislature has a legitimate interest in banning marijuana and the courts should not second-guess the legislature.

If the state Supreme Court overturns the lower court decisions, it will be the first time an Arizona court has allowed for the religious use of marijuana -- but not the first time an Arizona court has allowed for the religious use of a controlled substance. Arizona courts have ruled repeatedly that the possession of peyote for religious purposes by the Native American Church is allowable.

The appeals court argued that was different. With peyote, there was never any finding that the cactus was addictive or being used in quantities harmful to the health of participants. Also, peyote was used by a "discrete and well-defined group," the court held. Now, one of these months, we'll see if the state Supreme Court agrees.

Feature: Proposed Medical Marijuana Rules in Michigan Stir Chorus of Complaints

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), which is charged with crafting rules and regulations for the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program, got an earful from patients and activists at a public hearing in Lansing Monday. The MDCH draft regulations are overly burdensome and sometimes conflict with the new law, patients and activists charged.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/michigancapitol.jpg
Michigan Capitol
Under the state's medical marijuana law, which passed with the approval of 63% of the voters, MDCH has until April 4 to craft program regulations and begin issuing ID cards to qualified patients and caregivers. But now, after the detailed criticisms of its draft regulations, MDCH will have to go back to the drawing board -- and move fast.

Under the proposed rules, those qualified to grow and use marijuana would have to register yearly and be issued registration cards that could be revoked for criminal use or sales. Registered medical producers could supply no more than five patients each, and possess no more than 12 mature plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient.

Among the proposed rules drawing the ire of patients and advocates was one that would require patients to keep an inventory of the amount of marijuana they had on hand and one that would require patients to treat their medical marijuana supply more restrictively than they treat other medicines, including prescribed opiates, by requiring that the usable marijuana -- not just the plants -- be kept in an enclosed, locked facility. Another proposed rule, barring the use of medical marijuana in view of the public, went beyond the scope of the law, which only bars use in public, patients complained. They said that rule could lead to patients being arrested for medicating on their porches or even inside their homes if visible through a window.

"It seems to me you are attempting an end-run of what the people wanted and voted for," said Ken Shapiro of East Lansing, who uses marijuana for metastatic melanoma that, he said, has afflicted him for 31 years. Shapiro said he had endured radiation, chemotherapy, and more than 50 operations during his struggle with the disease. "Marijuana helped me get through it," he said. "It should be taken for granted that seriously ill people are not dealing drugs."

Another medical marijuana patient, Tom Higgins of Bay City, who currently cultivates his own marijuana outside the protection of the law, said proposed rules requiring disclosure and paperwork requirements could create a trail that could expose him to federal prosecution. "I won't follow the rules as they are now; I'll just keep growing marijuana as I have been," said Higgins, who suffers from hepatitis.

"The regulations are far more burdensome than necessary, directly conflict with the law that the voters enacted in several areas, and would require things not permitted by the law," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed the November initiative. "The department doesn't have the authority to create new, restrictive requirements, but that's what they've tried to do."

O'Keefe also testified at the Monday hearing, where she presented a detailed, 22-point list of required revisions to bring the draft regulations in compliance with the medical marijuana law. Voters approved the law and the safeguards it contains "without requiring self-incrimination or making life overly difficult for the seriously ill patients whom 63% of Michigan voters chose to allow to use medical marijuana without fearing arrest," she told the hearing.

O'Keefe was guardedly optimistic that MDCH would heed the complaints. "They've said they would take all comments into consideration, and we hope they will do so. We want this to be fixed and to see the program up and running as soon as possible," she said. "Until they set the rules, they won't be issuing ID cards, and until then, patients are at risk of arrest."

"The rules as proposed were overly technical and burdensome," said Greg Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA), the state's largest patient group. "But once we went through the hearings and explained our concerns, I think the state realized its rules weren't workable. We were not happy with the original rules, but we are happy the state seems to be listening."

Indeed, at the end of the hearing, State Bureau of Health Professions policy analyst Desmond Mitchell, who conducted the meeting, said the MDCH "will review everything and take a look at what revisions need to be made" in the coming weeks.

Even law enforcement complained about some of the proposed rules, especially one that would require that the medicine of patients who died or left the program be turned over to the state police. "It's burdensome for law enforcement to have someone come in, asking to destroy 12 plants," said Greg Zorotney of the State Police executive division. "Plants can grow quite big."

But Zorotney also told the panel that the ID card system should be entered into the same database as drivers' licenses, and that raised a red flag for advocates. "The state police don't want to be running around gathering up plants and medicine," said MPP's O'Keefe. "That's reasonable, and so is wanting the ability to verify ID cards 24-7. But they also want some kind of access to the patient database, and the law says that patient information is confidential. The only information they are entitled to is whether the patient is indeed registered," she said.

During the campaign to pass the initiative, the public face of patients was the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, but that MPP-funded group went out of business once its electoral objectives had been achieved. Now, MMMA, representing patients and activists who kept a low profile during the campaign, is coming to the fore.

"MPP asked us to lay low during the campaign, but we organized behind the scenes so we would be ready to go," explained Francisco. "We launched at the close of the polls on November 4. MMMA is about patients and what's right for the state and coming up with a workable medical marijuana program for the state," he said.

Now, MDCH has about three weeks to revise the rules and submit them to a legislative committee. The committee can either approve or reject the rules. If it rejects them, the legislature will have two weeks to write a bill with new rules, get it passed, and have it signed by the governor. In either case, the April 4 rollout date looms large.

"They have one more chance to get it right," said Francisco. "Once the revised rules go in, that's it. I really do believe these are just bureaucrats trying to do their job and that they will make the necessary changes. If not, it's litigation time."

"This has gotten a lot of attention in Michigan," said O'Keefe. "There was a really strong patient and advocate presence at the hearing, and there was a lot of media there. I think the department understands that it is important to get this right. If not, we are prepared to litigate," she warned.

Feature: DEA Rejects Yet Another Rescheduling Petition, But the End Game Lies Far Down the Road

The DEA has rejected yet another petition seeking to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), this one from Iowa-based marijuana reformer Carl Olsen. It is only the latest petition rejection by the agency in a glacially-paced struggle to reschedule marijuana that has been going on since 1972.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/cannabisplants.jpg
marijuana plants
But Olsen and other advocates of the rescheduling tactic say that is to be expected, and the rejection is only the opening phase of this particular battle, not the end of the line. And while Olsen heads to federal court to challenge the DEA ruling, another petition to reschedule marijuana is still in process, as it has been for the past six years.

Richard Nixon was just beginning his second term in office when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) filed the first rescheduling petition. It took 22 years and numerous court challenges before the DEA finally rejected that petition. In the meantime, the DEA rescheduled marijuana's primary psychoactive ingredient, THC, as a Schedule II drug in 1985 and loosened controls over THC even further by rescheduling it to Schedule III in 1999. That allows doctors to prescribe Marinol, but not marijuana.

Another rescheduling petition, filed by Olsen in 1992, was rejected years later, as was a 1995 petition submitted by former NORML head, researcher, and professor of public policy Jon Gettman. In 2002, Gettman, in association with a long list of supporters, submitted yet another Cannabis Rescheduling Petition, which remains pending.

Under the CSA, he argues, substances must meet several criteria to be placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule. The substance must have a high potential for abuse, it must have "no currently accepted medical use" in the US, and there must be a lack of accepted safety for use of the substance. Both the Olsen petition that was rejected last month (although the decision was not published until this week) and the pending Gettman petition argue that marijuana no longer qualifies to be placed in Schedule I because it does have "currently accepted medical use" in the US, citing in particular the ever-growing number of states that have legalized its medicinal use.

But the two petitions differ in the way they seek to remedy the situation, and it is this difference that accounts for the vastly different pace at which they have been handled by the DEA. While the Gettman petition is still awaiting a ruling six years after it was filed, Olsen's petition was only filed this year. The Gettman petition seeks to reschedule marijuana through the administrative process, the Olsen petition argues that the issue is a matter of statutory law. Under the CSA, if marijuana is found to have "currently accepted medical use," it cannot be Schedule I.

"I filed in May, filed a federal lawsuit in September, and got a ruling December," said Olsen. "The DEA has never moved that fast on a petition in its history, and by denying the petition, it is avoiding the possibility of having to deal with it again because now it will instead go back to the court of appeals."

Olsen's petition was not a request, but a demand that DEA recognize the reality that marijuana cannot be a Schedule I drug, he said. "I didn't ask for anything; I demanded that they comply with the law. It's not a Schedule I drug, and they are breaking the law by keeping it there," he said. "The statute says it can't be a Schedule I drug if it has accepted medical use, and 13 states say it has accepted medical use. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Not according to the DEA it doesn't. "Your petition and notice rest on your contention that federal drug law gives states the authority to determine, for purposes of the CSA, whether a drug has a 'currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,' and that marijuana has such a currently accepted medical use because 12 states have passed laws relating to the use of marijuana for medical purposes," wrote DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart in denying the petition.

Leonhart cited the Raich medical marijuana case in arguing that marijuana has no "accepted medical use" because the federal government doesn't recognize it, and even quoted from the decision: "The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail," and "Congress expressly found that [marijuana] has no acceptable medical uses."

Leonhart also quickly disposed of additional arguments presented by Olsen, summarizing her position by finding that "the existence of state legislation is not relevant to a scheduling determination." Thus, "there is no statutory basis for DEA to grant your petition to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana. Nor is there any basis to initiate any action based on your August 5th notice. The Petitioner's request is denied."

Now, it will be up to the federal courts to decide who is right. "The court has to rule on my complaint to enjoin the DEA from enforcing Schedule I," said Olsen. "If they rule in my favor, the DEA cannot claim it is a Schedule I drug; it will have to remove it from Schedule I."

In either case, the losing side will appeal. Look for a resolution of the Olsen case some time in the not-so-near future.

That's just how Olsen planned it, said Gettman. "I wasn't surprised at the DEA decision, and I don't think Carl was either," he said. "The whole point of his petition was to get this into federal court, and to do that, he had to be rejected administratively. This is really the beginning of Carl's legal challenge rather than the end."

Gettman credited Olsen with breaking new ground with the petition and even for inspiring Gettman himself to get involved with rescheduling. "Carl's arguments greatly clarify and build on state-level recognition of medical use, and set the stage for greater attention to this matter," he said. "And I have to say that Carl's activity and pioneering efforts are one of the things that inspired me to file the 1995 petition in the first place."

Meanwhile, Gettman's petition is still pending, although it has already moved through several stages of a lengthy bureaucratic process involving the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). "The last time we got a status report from FDA, they were nearing the end of their review," Gettman reported.

He is no hurry right now, he said. "We have deliberately decided not to pressure the government to complete the review. We would prefer to deal with the next administration instead of the current one," he explained. "Regardless of how the election turned out, we would have new personnel overseeing the process, and we think a fresh perspective would be beneficial."

Even if the FDA were to come down with a favorable review, there are many steps between that and actually rescheduling marijuana, and even then, the fight over marijuana will still be underway, said Gettman. "Rescheduling will not make medical marijuana available right away and it is not the end of deciding marijuana's regulatory status, it's the beginning," he said. "But it would change the regulatory environment and make it easier for states to accelerate the pace of reform, as well as make it easier for human studies to get under way and for companies to develop marijuana as a medical substance. Schedule I status discourages companies from doing that."

NORML founder Keith Stroup, who was in on the original 1972 rescheduling effort applauds Gettman's and Olsen's efforts, but said he has lost faith in ever gaining redress through that process. "I just don't believe anymore that the rulemaking process is ever going to work in our favor," he said. "We've been trying since 1973, and I think we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way, through the legislative process or voter initiatives. I just don't think the people in those agencies have the principled courage to do the right thing," Stroup added.

"Still, I'm pleased that Carl and Jon continue to pursue these avenues," he said. "It's to our advantage to put pressure on the system wherever we can."

Whether it's a long-shot or not, the effort to change the marijuana laws through seeking rescheduling is not going away. And who knows? It might actually pay off big one of these years.

Obama Administration: Surgeon General Nominee Gupta Hates Marijuana, Sort of Supports Medical Use

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/sanjaygupta.jpg
Sanjay Gupta (loc.gov)
Drug reformers busily poring over the tea leaves in an effort to discern the drug policy intentions of the incoming Obama administration have found little solace in the announcement that it will nominate Dr. Sanjay Gupta for the position of surgeon general. One of America's most famous doctors, Gupta is a neurosurgeon who also doubles as a correspondent for CNN and CBS News.

The Obama administration offer came after a two-hour meeting between Gupta and Obama in Chicago in November. At that meeting, Obama told Gupta he would have an expanded role in providing health policy advice and would be the highest-profile surgeon general in history.

Gupta has a history in health policy. He served as a White House fellow in the 1990s, writing speeches and advising Hillary Clinton on health policy issues. He is also an accomplished, telegenic communicator.

While he has received criticism from some quarters for being too friendly with big pharmaceutical companies and from others for wrongly accusing filmmaker Michael Moore of falsehoods in his documentary "Sicko," it is his old-school views on marijuana that are raising hackles in drug reform circles. Most famously, in a November 2006 editorial in Time magazine, Gupta, while acknowledging marijuana's medical benefits for some patients, went on to repeat a raft of long-debunked anti-marijuana myths as reasons for opposing marijuana reform initiatives on the ballot in Nevada and Colorado that week. In Gupta's words:

"Maybe it's because I was born a couple of months after Woodstock and wasn't around when marijuana was as common as iPods are today, but I'm constantly amazed that after all these years -- and all the wars on drugs and all the public-service announcements -- nearly 15 million Americans still use marijuana at least once a month. California and 10 other states have already decriminalized marijuana for medical use. Two states -- Colorado and Nevada -- are considering ballot initiatives that would legalize up to an ounce of pot for personal use by people 21 and older, whether or not there is a medical need.

"What do voters need to know before going to the polls?

"The first is that marijuana isn't really very good for you. True, there are health benefits for some patients. Several recent studies, including a new one from the Scripps Research Institute, show that THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for the high, can help slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease. (In fact, it seems to block the formation of disease-causing plaques better than several mainstream drugs.) Other studies have shown THC to be a very effective antinausea treatment for people -- cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example -- for whom conventional medications aren't working. And medical cannabis has shown promise relieving pain in patients with multiple sclerosis and reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients.

"But I suspect that most of the people eager to vote yes on the new ballot measures aren't suffering from glaucoma, Alzheimer's or chemo-induced nausea. Many of them just want to get stoned legally. That's why I, like many other doctors, am unimpressed with the proposed legislation, which would legalize marijuana irrespective of any medical condition.

"Why do I care? As Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, puts it, "Numerous deleterious health consequences are associated with [marijuana's] short- and long-term use, including the possibility of becoming addicted."

"What are other health consequences? Frequent marijuana use can seriously affect your short-term memory. It can impair your cognitive ability (why do you think people call it dope?) and lead to long-lasting depression or anxiety. While many people smoke marijuana to relax, it can have the opposite effect on frequent users. And smoking anything, whether it's tobacco or marijuana, can seriously damage your lung tissue.

"The Nevada and Colorado marijuana initiatives have gained support from unlikely places. More than 33 religious leaders in Nevada have endorsed the measure, arguing that permissive legalization, accompanied by stringent regulations and penalties, can cut down on illegal drug trafficking and make communities safer.

"Perhaps. But I'm here to tell you, as a doctor, that despite all the talk about the medical benefits of marijuana, smoking the stuff is not going to do your health any good. And if you get high before climbing behind the wheel of a car, you will be putting yourself and those around you in danger."

Whether Gupta if confirmed will support medical marijuana -- as opposed to mere THC-based pharmaceuticals such as Marinol -- or do good for drug policy reform in other ways, remains to be seen. And he did demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge some of the arguments made by the other side. But his apparent blindness to the harm caused to marijuana users by arrest and incarceration is not a great first sign. Change we can believe in for drug policy? Only time will tell.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive