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The Week Online with DRCNet
(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)

Issue #83, 3/19/99

"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Institute of Medicine Report Confirms Marijuana's Medicinal Value
  2. HEA Reform Bill Introduced in Congress
  3. Rep. Rangel Seeks End to Cocaine Sentencing Disparities
  4. Canada: Husband of Medical Marijuana User Arrested as Government Announces Clinical Trials, Possible Medical Exemption
  5. Minnesota Hemp Bill Progressing
  6. DPF Grant Deadline Coming Up
  7. EDITORIAL: IOM Report Leaves Only One Thing Left to Say

1. Institute of Medicine Report Confirms Marijuana's Medicinal Value

More than two years after it was commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a long-awaited report from the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine (IOM) has confirmed much of what thousands of doctors and seriously ill patients have contended for years: marijuana provides effective relief for a variety of symptoms and ailments. Further, the report concluded that there is no scientific basis for the oft repeated claims that marijuana use acts as a "gateway" to harder drugs, nor that the medicinal use of marijuana is likely to encourage its abuse either among patients or the public at large.

The reaction among patients who gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington for the report's release was jubilant. "I feel vindicated, absolutely vindicated," said Greg Scott, who suffers from AIDS and smokes marijuana to combat nausea and loss of appetite caused both by the disease and by the medications used to treat it. "After years of risking arrest, property forfeiture, fines, and imprisonment, the findings of this report demonstrate that clearly enough evidence already exists to permit people who need this as medicine to smoke it legally." Scott's and the other patients' presence represented the culmination of a two-year advocacy effort coordinated by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP -- http://www.mpp.org), and their testimony before the IOM investigators is included in the report.

The sense of victory among the patients and their supporters was sweetened by the circumstances under which the report was commissioned. Furious with voters in the wake of the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona in 1996, ONDCP chief Barry McCaffrey had ordered the report to settle the question of what he mockingly called "Cheech and Chong medicine" for which "not a shred of evidence exists" to prove its efficacy. In comments to the press this week, McCaffrey ignored the report's finding that smoked marijuana has legitimate therapeutic value, and focused instead on the recommendation that alternative delivery devices such as inhalers be developed to eliminate the need for smoking the drug. The IOM report notes that such a device will likely take years, and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.

Scott said that's fine for the future, but what about right now? "I have to deal with taking my medications twice a day, today, tomorrow, and all next week. And the inhaler is not going to help me for years to come. So I would ask (McCaffrey), what should be done with people like me? Does he advocate that he continues to arrest us? I have long been amazed by McCaffrey's ability to spin things in his own direction. But he has never satisfactorily answered how he would handle all the patients who need this medicine. He refuses to say what alternative there is to arresting us."

The IOM report does recommend alternatives to arrest, though as co-principal investigator Stanley J. Watson noted in response to a reporter's question on the matter, the scientists impaneled on the report were "specifically not asked" to consider questions related to marijuana's illicit status. Instead, the panel suggests the development of a program similar to the now-defunct government compassionate use program, in which patients for whom already approved treatments failed would obtain permission to use marijuana under strict medical supervision.

But Harvard professor of psychiatric medicine Dr. Lester Grinspoon, who was one of the report's reviewers, told DRCNet he is concerned that the onerous bureaucratic requirements involved in such a program hamper its effectiveness. "The old IND (compassionate use) program started in 1976, and by the time it was closed down in 1992 only about three dozen people had passed the hurdles to receive legal access to marijuana. Why? Because physicians just couldn't take the time to do all the paperwork that was involved. And physicians are a lot busier now with managed care, with paperwork. I just don't see how that's going to provide a solution."

Given McCaffrey's indication that he has not been swayed by the scientific evidence, however, such concerns may be moot. MPP co-director Chuck Thomas said he doubts the ONDCP will follow the report's recommendations, noting McCaffrey's comment to the press that he didn't expect to see patients in the Intensive Care Unit "with blunts stuck in their faces." Thomas said that as long as official government policy puts patients at risk of arrest, MPP's advocacy will continue unabated. "The IOM recommended one way for patients to have legal access," he said. "We support that, and we support all of the other ways for people to have legal access as well."

The full text of the IOM report is available online at http://www.nas.edu.


2. HEA Reform Bill Introduced in Congress

The Higher Education Act reform campaign cleared a hurdle last week with the introduction of H.R. 1053, which will repeal the provision in the HEA delaying or denying federal financial aid for any student with a drug conviction. The bill, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), will need a significant number of cosponsors to get to the floor, given Republican leadership's support of the provision that it would repeal.

But despite powerful supporters, the HEA provision has formidable opponents as well. The Department of Education, in a letter dated August 7, 1998, outlining its positions on the various amendments then being considered by the Education Committee, stated that it "oppose(s) the language in both versions of the bill suspending aid eligibility for students who have been convicted of any drug offense under Federal or State law."

The Department of Education pointed to the fact that current law already allows judges to strip eligibility for all federal aid if they feel that an individual case warrants such an action. The HEA, as passed last fall, eliminates that discretion.

Peder Nelson, a student at Western Colorado State College, where the HEA Reform Resolution has already been endorsed by the student government, told The Week Online that the Frank bill will give a dramatic boost to the campaign.

"I think that this makes (the campaign for reform) more real in the eyes of students," he said. "I have been dealing with student leaders at other schools in Colorado on this issue, and having our bill introduced has immediately added an urgency and a sense of legitimacy to what we're trying to accomplish." Nelson continued, "One of the problems with student activism is that it tends to be somewhat diffuse. It's difficult, sometimes, for less politically active students to differentiate between a legitimate political effort and a lost cause, and so many of them don't get involved in anything, even if they believe in the principles behind the effort. From what I can tell, I think that we're going to see a flurry of activity on a lot of campuses between now and the end of the school year."

Nelson understands, however, that there are more hurdles to overcome on the road to success. "No one involved in this effort is operating under the illusion that we're going to get this bill passed by finals. This is an effort that will have to continue into the fall semester and probably beyond. But we're preparing for that, and in talking with the other student organizers as well as the DRCNet staff over the Internet, we have an opportunity not only to build momentum now, but to make sure that when the students return, we'll be able to pick up where we left off."

And they won't be alone. With the bill introduced, it is expected that numerous organizations will be joining the effort in the coming weeks.

Jamie Pueschel, legislative director of the United States Student Association, which lobbied against the provision last year, told The Week Online, "The new law (denying aid) is just about as discriminatory as it gets."

There are numerous concerns over the impact of the new HEA provision. These include the fact that such sanctions will only affect students of low to moderate income, and the fact that non-white communities are targeted for drug law enforcement more vigorously than white communities.

"When African Americans make up 13% of drug users, but 55% of those convicted for drug offenses, something is definitely wrong," said Shawn Heller, spokesperson for Students for a Sensible Drug Policy at George Washington University. "The bottom line is that kids are not getting stopped and frisked on the streets in white, middle class communities. This law cannot help but have a discriminatory impact."

Heller believes that the HEA Reform Campaign will get more students involved in the larger issues of drug policy.

"In highlighting the absurdity of this law, and getting students involved in an effort to have it overturned, we have a great opportunity to get them thinking. Why are states increasing prison budgets while they're cutting budgets for higher education? It's the same age cohort that are entering prisons and universities. Why, if drug use rates are steady across most ethnic lines, are we convicting and incarcerating such outrageous percentages of African Americans and Latinos? Why, for all the money spent, and all the people imprisoned, and all the fried egg commercials, can the government not point to a single drug free community, or even a single drug free high school? Today's college students know first-hand that our policies don't work. This campaign, while focused on a particularly egregious example of stupidity, really underscores the problems with the drug war as a whole."

Read about the Higher Education Act reform campaign at http://www.u-net.org.


3. Rep. Rangel Seeks End to Cocaine Sentencing Disparities

(reprinted from the Drug Policy Foundation's Network News, http://www.dpf.org)

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 939, the "Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999" on March 2, along with 25 Democratic cosponsors. Rangel introduced a similar bill in 1997, but did not get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The bill would eliminate the distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, treating both substances equally under federal law. Right now, possession of five grams of crack cocaine carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while 500 grams of powder cocaine receives the same sentence. Possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine results in a 10-year mandatory minimum, but it takes five kilograms of powder cocaine to receive a comparable sentence. This difference in penalties is commonly referred
to as the "100-to-1 sentencing disparity," and it has disproportionately impacted African-American defendants who are often targeted by drug law enforcement.

Rep. Rangel's bill is not the first attempt to equalize crack and powder cocaine sentences. In April 1995, the US Sentencing Commission recommended that the 100-to-1 ratio be abandoned in favor of equal penalties for both forms of cocaine. On October 30, 1995, Congress passed, and the President signed, a law (PL 104-38) overturning that decision, which resulted in the largest prison riots in the history of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Learn more about mandatory minimum sentencing from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, http://www.famm.org.


4. Canada: Husband of Medical Marijuana User Arrested as Government Announces Clinical Trials, Possible Medical Exemption

Marc Brandl, [email protected]
Several days before the London (Ontario) based Cannabis Compassion Centre (CCC) was scheduled to close, center manager Mike Harichy was arrested and charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking and two counts of trafficking. His wife, Lynn Harichy, uses marijuana for her multiple sclerosis and also helps run the center. She created headlines in Canada in 1997 when she was arrested trying to light up a joint in front of a police headquarters (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/013.html#canada). Allegedly Mr. Harichy sold to an undercover officer wanting to buy marijuana for recreational purposes.

Medical marijuana advocates were anxious to keep the medical and recreational issues separate. Prof. Alan Young, an attorney who defends medical marijuana patients in court, and a professor at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, said, if it was a straight sale to an undercover officer, I don't want much to do with the case because unfortunately it could be used to discredit the movement." Hillary Black, who founded and helps run the Compassion Club in Vancouver was not worried about police raids on her establishment after this high profile arrest. Said Black, "We run a very tight organization here. We've been here for two years and have developed a good relationship with the community and with the different HIV and cancer groups in Vancouver. We have a good reputation for being an upstanding organization."

The London CCC had operated with police knowledge since July 1998 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/038.html#canada). The decision to close the club came when the federal government announced recently it would start clinical studies exploring the medical utility of the plant. Health Minister Allan Rock announced on March 3rd to the House of Commons that Health Canada would soon undertake such studies. "Minister Rock has been discussing the issue of medicinal use for over a year now." Derek Kent, a spokesperson for the Minister, told the WOL, "Two events have paved the way for this announcement. First, health officials went to Great Britain to examine the clinical trials that are taking place. Second, there was an announcement by an office of the UN that encouraged research into the medical use of marijuana which removed potential hurdles in terms of our international [treaty] obligations."

Medicinal marijuana activists were less than impressed, however. "The problem I have is that immediate concerns need to be addressed," said Prof. Young. "Unfortunately patients don't have the luxury of waiting while the government figures out what to do."

Eugene Oscapella, also a lawyer and one of the founding members of Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://fox.nstn.ca/~eoscapel/cfdp/cfdp.html) told the WOL of his impression of the announcement, "In theory it is a step forward -- in fact there is a lot of politics involved. Minister Rock made this announcement the day before a motion was to be debated about legalizing medical marijuana. It was a bit of political gamesmanship, unfortunately. The minister also worded his statement very carefully. He's asked his officials to develop a plan for clinical trials, not start trials immediately. There is always a danger that the plan will take forever to develop."

Currently, only one person in Canada, Terry Parker, an epileptic, is allowed to smoke cannabis legally, after a 1997 court decision granted him a legal exemption (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/022.html#canada).

Minister Rock is also considering exempting medical marijuana patients who aren't part of the clinical trials. "We understand some of the people really need access to marijuana. What we want to do is develop the evidence while still developing a plan that is flexible enough not to be too restrictive to those who cannot get access through the trials."

Professor Young helped a patient afflicted with AIDS apply for the legal exemption but remains skeptical. "I applied September 15th, it's now the end of March and I have not been able to receive any clarification of the process. So even though Mr. Rock seems to have promised that exemptions will be forthcoming, my question to him is what has happened in the last eight months?"

Ms. Black was more optimistic about the trials and has a plan to make the exemption process move ahead. "I think the trials are a good idea, but its been a long time coming. It's important that advocates of medicinal marijuana not back off at this point. This is a time to be applying more pressure rather than less. Any patient that has been given a prescription from their physician for the medical use of cannabis should be given an exemption so they are free to cultivate, carry and consume cannabis."


5. Minnesota Hemp Bill Progressing

Marc Brandl, [email protected]
In issue 76, the Week Online reported that a bill had been introduced in the Minnesota legislature that would allow experimental industrial hemp plots to be grown. On March 9th, the Senate passed SF0122 by a vote of 54-4.

Some daunting hurdles remain before the bill can become law, however. The Minnesota house is controlled by Republicans who voted against favorable hemp legislation in their party caucus earlier this year. The bill also must be heard by the House Crime Prevention Committee. The committee is headed by former police officer Rep. Rich Stanek (R), who has voiced his strong opposition to hemp in the past and who has the power to stall the bill indefinitely.

Chris Radatz, director of governmental affairs for the Minnesota Farm Bureau told the WOL, "We support research into both the harvesting and marketing aspects of hemp. We had some concerns that this bill went beyond research and we expressed those concerns but didn't lobby the bill directly."


6. DPF Grant Deadline Coming Up

A reminder to organizations that were considering applying for funding from the Drug Policy Foundation's grant program: The next deadline is April 1, 1999. Proposals must be in the format outlined in the grant guidelines last revised August 1998 and be postmarked by April 1 to be considered for funding. The guidelines are located online at http://www.dpf.org/html/guidelines.html.

For further information, please contact Kerry Hopkins or Ruth Lampi in the DPF Grant Program at (202) 537-5005 or via e-mail at [email protected].


7. EDITORIAL: IOM Report Leaves Only One Thing Left to Say

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.


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