Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]The Institute of Medicine this week confirmed what patients from around the country have been telling the government for years: marijuana relieves their pain, their spasms and their nausea. The report, commissioned by ONDCP Director Barry McCaffrey, left the much-decorated drug czar nearly speechless. McCaffrey's assertions over the past three years -- that the medicinal use of marijuana is "hooey" and "a sham" and "Cheech and Chong medicine" and that there is "not a shred of scientific evidence" to support it -- didn't leave him much wiggling room when the truth, paid for out of his own budget, hit him like a truckload of Acapulco Gold that just got waved through customs.
True to form, however, the good General didn't let the truth dissuade him from his mission as chief apologist for the drug war. Instead, McCaffrey focused on the fact that the report recommended alternative methods of administration due to the health risks of smoking. Even there, of course, the scientists noted that for many patients, the benefits of marijuana use outweighed the long-term risk from inhaling burning vegetable matter.
"I would note that the report points out that the future of marijuana as medicine lies in things like inhalers" and drugs extracted from the plant, he said, not in the use of the raw vegetation itself. What McCaffrey did not say, and the question that has been central all along, is whether he still believes that patients, many of whom believe that this plant has saved their lives, ought to be arrested for using or possessing it in the meantime.
The report, however, went beyond the medical use of the plant and, with a casualness that belied the real-world implications of their findings, managed to debunk two of the most important underpinnings of the prohibitionist argument. The first is the gateway theory, which states that the use of marijuana somehow "leads" to the use of harder drugs. The second is that marijuana is addictive.
On the gateway theory, the report indicated that whatever impact marijuana had on the use of harder drugs was a function not of the substance, but of the criminal market, which brings users into contact with those who would rather sell them the big ticket items. As to addiction, the report noted that whatever withdrawal was experienced by regular users upon cessation was short-lived and extremely mild.
This is not the first time the US government has commissioned a report on marijuana that it later wished it had not. The 1972 Shafer Commission report, authorized by President Nixon, recommended the outright decriminalization of the stuff -- and not just for medicinal purposes. That report was ignored. The IOM Report will be more difficult to ignore, what with state after state casting ballots to relieve the sick and the dying of the fear of imprisonment.
On Wednesday, March 17, the government got answers that it didn't want -- to questions that it didn't necessarily want to ask -- and found, in the midst of the resultant media crush, that it had very little to say in defense of its own policy. Sure, smoking is bad. But AIDS and MS and chemotherapy-induced nausea are undoubtedly worse. Worse still is a government's refusal to allow people suffering so to choose their method of relief, now that there can be no argument that the relief that they feel is much more than a buzz in their heads. If there is an ounce of integrity, a gram of compassion, or a bud of humanity in the drug czar's office or in the administration itself, the next thing they say on the matter will be the only thing that counts. They will promise that the disgraceful ays of arresting the sick and the dying for choosing to gain relief through a naturally occurring herb, are over forever.