One of Congress' leading drug warriors, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), was at it again last week. At a hearing of his House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources April 1, Souder once again took up the cudgel against medical marijuana, lining up a panel heavy on government anti-drug experts, more neutral state medical marijuana program administrators, and what he hoped would be an easily demonizable trio of medical marijuana advocates, Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) executive director Rob Kampia; Dr. Claudia Jensen, a California pediatrician who dared to suggest that marijuana could help kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; and Dr. Phillip Leveque, the prolific Portland, Oregon, medical marijuana prescriber who was recently sanctioned by the state medical board. (To Souder's consternation, Leveque did not show up. Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/226/drleveque.shtml http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/234/drleveque.shtml for previous DRCNet coverage of Dr. Leveque.)
"This wasn't a panel set up to show the positive aspects of medical marijuana programs, but the worst," said Steve Fox, MPP director of legislative affairs. "If they were truly examining medical marijuana from a science-based approach, it would have been more appropriate to have a researcher, but given that Souder wanted to talk about state medical marijuana laws, we thought it would be good to have Rob on to address the whole range of issues," he told DRCNet. "We got him on the panel by working with minority staff."
Souder, who is most infamous as the author of the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision, through which people convicted of any drug offense lose access to federal student financial aid, started off the hearing in typical fashion, telling the audience he was there to look into the "highly controversial topic of the use of marijuana for so-called medical purposes." Many Americans have been duped by "a large and well-funded pro-drug movement," he asserted. The success of the pro-druggies in convincing people to vote for medical marijuana initiatives "has set up a direct conflict between federal and state law" and "put into focus the competing claims about marijuana as a medicine," he continued. It was the claims that marijuana is an efficacious medicine he hoped to puncture during the hearing.
Souder brought on witnesses such as Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse to emphasize that marijuana is a dangerous drug. "Marijuana is not a benign drug," she told the committee, citing two million "marijuana addicts," as well as a host of ill effects ranging from intoxication to the inhalation of carcinogens.
Souder then went on a great length with witnesses from the Food and Drug Administration and the DEA about how marijuana has not been approved as a medicine by the FDA. "Souder kept repeated that the FDA hasn't approved it, so it's not an approved medicine," said Fox. "A great example of circular logic."
"There has been ample research that shows marijuana is safe and effective," said Kampia in his prepared remarks. "It's safer than most prescription medicines. It's safer than aspirin. And it's certainly medically efficacious." Kampia conceded Souder's point that there are insufficient studies to have the FDA approve it as a medicine, but he blamed "political reasons," citing Department of Health and Human Services guidelines that make it more difficult to research marijuana than LSD, ecstasy, or newly developed drugs. "That has a chilling effect on research," he noted. Kampia also described the DEA as "obstructionist," pointing to its failure to either approve or deny a Massachusetts program that would privately grow marijuana for research purposes.
"Rob was there to there to make clear that marijuana does have recognized medical benefits, but Souder didn't really want to go back and forth with Rob about the federal government not recognizing marijuana as medicine or its efforts to thwart research," said Fox. "We were, however, able to get some written questions submitted to the DEA about why it is taking so long to approve or deny that license for the Massachusetts project, and now they will have to answer those questions within 30 days."
Kampia also lit into Souder over the make-up of the panels heard by the committee. Noting that the only medical marijuana-prescribing doctor invited to testify was Dr. Leveque, the physician recently disciplined by the Oregon medical board for his prescribing practices, Kampia called the selection process "highly biased." He also took issue with Souder's failure to invite any actual medical marijuana patients to testify. "You say you wonder what impact medical marijuana has on these patients, given that it hasn't gone through the FDA, yet you didn't invite any patients to speak today."
And he called Souder on his demonstrably false claims that medical marijuana has no support from medical groups and that the Dutch government does not support medical marijuana. "On the House floor, you said you met with officials from the Dutch government and they said, supposedly, that they rejected the use of smoked marijuana for so-called medical purposes," Kampia noted. "I don't believe you. "Holland is currently allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana, and patients are picking it up at the pharmacy. It hardly sounds to me like the Dutch oppose medical marijuana."
"I want to thank you for at least being consistent," Souder muttered at the end of Kampia's testimony.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), a supporter of medical marijuana, used the question portion of the hearing to ask Dr. Jensen about her limited use of marijuana in treating in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in adolescents -- Jensen has recommended it for two patients -- and explored the reasons for Dr. Leveque's being disciplined by Oregon medical authorities. Leveque was suspended last month for allegedly violating Oregon medical practice standards by signing medical marijuana recommendations without conducting on-site physical exams. "Did any violations adversely affect his patients?" asked Sanchez. She got no answer.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) didn't stick around for the testimony, but lingered in the committee long enough to jab at Souder over the HEA anti-drug provision. "It doesn't seem we ought to ruin a kid's life by giving him a record for smoking pot," she said, noting that "it's not middle class white kids who get arrested for smoking pot."
Dr. Jensen, for her part, was deft enough at explaining her use of medical marijuana in treating ADHD that Souder barely bothered to attack her and desisted when she proved able to hold her own. Jensen even had a gift for Souder: A copy of University of Southern California clinical psychologist Dr. Mitch Earleywine's "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence." Now, if he would only read it.
"This was Souder's show," said MPP's Fox. "We were basically playing defense, but I think we prevented Souder from doing anything to hurt medical marijuana, which is what he wanted to do."
Visit http://www.mpp.org/hearing/ for complete transcripts of written and oral testimony, and the question and answer period.