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Pot Shots

Dialogue with the DEA

by FRED GARDNER

The levee that gave way when Lake Pontchartrain poured into New Orleans was not an old earthern berm strengthened by vegetation, but a "new, improved" concrete-and-steel wall. In the rescue effort, helicopters made so much noise that people trapped inside houses could not be heard. Old-fashioned boats saved them. Sandbags to repair the levee had to be dropped from helicopters because new bridges in the vicinity were too low for barges to pass under. The planners assumed that delivery by air, even of massive objects, would be more efficient than delivery by barge. They believed in the myth of progress.

The myth of progress was a factor in the pharmaceutical industry’s decision not to defend its right to market cannabis extracts in the 1930s. The men in charge assumed that injectable opioids, barbiturates, and patentable synthetics would be superior in terms of efficacy, purity, precise dosage, and profitability. In 1937 that Standard Oil and General Motors secretly subsidized Greyhound to undercut the light rail lines that connected every American city to its suburbs. Blinded by the myth of progress, the American people did not foresee what cars would do to the cities and the air. The myth of progress ignores ecological costs and defines disconnect from nature as a good thing.

The myth of progress underlies the talking points that DEA Administrator Karen Tandy issued this year. These same arguments for ongoing marijuana prohibition were reiterated in a press release from the DEA’s Sacramento District Office headed "Looking Through the Smokescreen -Smoked Marijuana Is Not Medicine." An Aug. 3 press release identified the author, Gordon D. Taylor, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, as "a veteran of DEA for over 18 years, who has oversight of DEA operations in 34 counties throughout the Central Valley and Northern California." Let’s assume that Mr. Taylor wrote in good faith, not as a bureaucrat signing his name to assertions he doesn’t really mean. His arguments are followed by our comments.

"Within the past five years, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice said ‘no’ to the ‘medical marijuana’ argument. o The Court has never tried to determine whether marijuana is safe and effective medicine. The Court ruled in 2001 that the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op, an institution, could not make a "medical necessity" argument to justify its distribution of marijuana to patients. The Court ruled in ’04, in the Raich case, that Congress can ban even intrastate production and consumption of marijuana.

"This has led pro-marijuana advocates to spread misinformation on the subject as they seek to push their agenda forward. It is time to set the record straight."

A review of the facts is always useful.

"The scientific and medical communities have determined that smoked marijuana is a health danger, not a cure."

The big news at the 2005 meeting of the world’s leading researchers in this field was that smoked marijuana does not cause cancer of the lung or upper airwaves, and it might even have a protective effect! Marijuana is indeed not a cure for anything -it is a palliative, it makes symptoms less severe in a wide range of conditions.

"There are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications that are smoked, primarily because smoking is an unsafe and ineffective way to deliver medicine."

For people with seizure disorders smoking marijuana confers a great advantage: instant impact on the brain. For people with nausea (widespread in an age of chemotherapy and antiretroviral medications), smoking marijuana is highly preferable to ingesting it orally. Others prefer smoking because they can titrate their dosage precisely to achieve the desired effect (and not get loaded). Also, the effect is of much shorter duration. There is some bronchial insult, but it’s up to the doctor and patient to make the cost-benefit analysis. Vaporization is an alternative technique that has been overlooked intentionally by the FDA. In 1998, Tod Mikuriya, MD, extolled the advantages of vaporization to the Institute of Medicine investigators, Stanley Watson, MD, and John Benson, MD, who proceeded to include not a word on the subject in their Report. Things are changing. The August 18 New England Journal of Medicine illustrated an article on "Medical Marijuana and the Supreme Court" with a photo of the Volcano vaporizer from Storz & Bickel, with a respectful caption.

"Americans today have the world’s safest, most effective system for approving prescription drugs, which must undergo rigorous FDA-approved scientific research. They must be proven to be both safe and effective for medical treatment."

The Vioxx scandal should end all illusions: the FDA is under the sway of the drug companies it is supposed to regulate. Early clinical trials had alerted Merck executives to the coronary damaged caused by Vioxx. Their response was to exclude from future trials anyone with a history of heart trouble. Once Vioxx was on the market, Merck suppressed indications that it caused strokes and heart attacks at twice the normal rate in people who used it for 18 months or more. The FDA let them get away with it and punished a whistle-blower, David Graham, MD, who ultimately went public with his estimate of the likely harm wrought by Vioxx: 55,000 deaths and 85,000 debilitating injuries.

Marijuana is literally and figuratively an alternative to Vioxx. SCC doctors report that many patients define their progress in terms of which pharmaceutical drugs they can stop taking or cut back on (avoiding adverse side effects and, often, great expense). "How’s your back pain?" the doctor will ask. "I’m getting away with half as many Vicodin," the patient will respond.

"Smoked marijuana has not passed the safe and effective test, and therefore remains a prohibited substance under federal drug laws. Marijuana advocates often cite the 1999 Institute of Medicine report as justifying the use of ‘medical marijuana.’ However, they fail to mention the study’s finding that ‘marijuana is not modern medicine.’ The study concluded, there is little future in smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication."

Research has been virtually impossible to conduct as DEA, NIDA, FDA, and the courts give applicants the runaround. Marijuana, obviously, is not modern medicine. Prozac is modern medicine. The myth of progress automatically confers superiority on the synthetic over the plant (with which we’ve co-evolved and used medically for eons). The authors of the IOM study, Doctors Benson and Watson are supposed to value rigor, but "…little future in" is so vague as to be meaningless. And "medically approved medication" is awkward, as if the authors were substituting meaningless syllables for "government-approved medication," or "commercially viable medication."

"While the study recognized that a compound in marijuana may be potentially therapeutic for some conditions, it recommended that further research be conducted."

"Further research" is always needed to determine something, but not to establish the safety of cannabis. Further research is needed to determine which compounds in the plant exert which effects. If California growers could ascertain which cannabinoids predominate in their various strains, they could develop strains with desired effects. This is what G.W. Pharmaceutical is doing under license from the British government. Come the day that California doctors can monitor their patients’ use of cannabis rich in CBD, CBN, CBG, THCV and other cannabinoids of interest, productive clinical research will flourish.

"To that end, the DEA has approved and will continue to approve research into whether the active ingredient in marijuana can be formulated for medical use. Over the last few years, the DEA has registered every researcher meeting FDA standards to use marijuana in scientific studies. The DEA and medical science do not fear any compound, even those with a potential for abuse. If any substance has the proven capacity to serve a medical purpose, then it will be accepted. The key term is ‘proven capacity.’ Only if compounds from marijuana pass the same tests of research scrutiny that all other drugs must undergo will they become part of the modern medical arsenal."

Schedule I has no scientific basis or support. Virtually every compound so designated has appropriate medical usage that has been proven in the past, or demonstrates such potential for the future.

"Unfortunately, there are many people who view marijuana as a harmless or soft drug. Information from tests and studies suggest otherwise. On average, the marijuana today is eight times more potent than it was during the early 1970’s."

The myth of progress again. Northern California growers may claim to have "invented" sinsemilla, but old photos of fields in India and Morocco -any place where cannabis has been grown traditionally- depict big, fat colas, meaning the growers knew to pull the males and let the female flowers put out maximum resin. Weren’t those old-timers smart enough to crossbreed their most desirable plants? Even if the strains are vastly stronger nowadays, what are the ramifications? For most people, less cannabis can be used to achieve the desired effect. The rare user wishing to get knocked-out-loaded could do so on weak marijuana, it would just mean inhaling more.

"Recent studies show that more teenagers enter drug treatment for marijuana abuse than for alcohol and all other illegal drugs combined."

Coerced treatment has been escalating since the late 1980s. According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, only 15.9% of the referrals were self- or family-inspired; the rest were coerced by law enforcement, school administrators and "Substance Abuse/Health care providers."

"Marijuana related emergency room visits for teenagers more than tripled between 1994 and 2001. These statistics directly contradict the claim that marijuana is a harmless drug."

These so-called "emergency room visits" are actually "mentions" in response to questions from hospital personnel as to what drugs the patient has used. Such mentions do not represent a causal association. In fact, most "marijuana mentions" have no role or relationship to the underlying medical problem.

"Contrary to what legalizers contend, DEA targets not the sick and dying, but criminals engaged in cultivation and trafficking of illegal drugs."

Many of the sick and dying are supplied with cannabis by growers and dispensary operators who are by definition "criminals" to the DEA.

"In many instances, those who provide considerable funding to the ‘medical marijuana’ movement use the sick and terminally ill as a smokescreen to hide their true agenda, which is across-the-board legalization of marijuana."

"Considerable funding" has been provided by George Soros, Peter Lewis, and a few other rich men to the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and a few other favored reform groups. It’s ironic that the drug warriors vilify the agenda of Soros et al. The reform groups the rich men fund are WAY more conservative than the movement leader they replaced, Dennis Peron. Dennis’s agenda linked legalizing marijuana to world peace, land in the country, an end to poverty and discriminatin of all kinds … "This isn’t about marijuana, this is about America," he kept saying during the Prop 215 campaign, "it’s about how we treat each other as people." Dennis’s famous line: "In a country where they give Prozac to shy teenagers, all marijuana use is medical"- was not some trick to achieve legalization, it was a putdown of the pharmaceutical industry and a challenge to a corporate culture that "medicalizes" problems that are basically social and economic.

"’Medical pot’" users often cite minor ailments as their justification to use marijuana, such as anxiety, premenstrual syndrome or sleeplessness. These users, and many like them who use marijuana for so-called medical purposes, are simply exploiting California marijuana laws to shield themselves from local law enforcement and to disguise their desire to get high."

We, the people of California, legalized the use of marijuana in treating any illness for which it provides relief. There was no subterfuge, it’s the first sentence of Prop 215. The open-ended nature of the initiative was denounced in the ballot arguments and throughout the campaign by Attorney General Dan Lungren and every other opponent who weighed in -Bill Clinton, Gray Davis, Janet Reno, Barry McCaffrey, Tom Constantine of the DEA, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, C. Everett Koop, the California Medical Association, 57 out of 58 DAs, and almost every police chief and sheriff in the state. Prop 215 was indeed passed to shield marijuana users from local law enforcement. To take this as a personal affront is unprofessional. We are not children playing cops and robbers. We are fellow citizens. For many the "desire to get high" is actually the desire to feel normal, the desire to overcome depression, stress, etc. Tom O’Connell, MD, has documented numerous examples of young men who use marijuana to alleviate depression but call it "getting high," for various reasons of their own, including denial, macho image, etc.

"The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on marijuana should prompt parents to discuss with their children the problems and hazards associated with marijuana use. We owe it to our children to tell them the truth about the dangers of marijuana and help them see through the ‘medical marijuana’ smokescreen."

Marijuana use among teenagers has been going down nationwide -especially in the states that have medical marijuana laws, according to a recent study by O’Keefe and Earleywine. Either the image of marijuana as medicine is a turn-off to young people, or the Patriot Act and stories about FBI agents retrieving library records, etc., have convinced increasing numbers of teens not to give self-incriminating information to government survey takers.

Frank Lucido, MD, gives this advice to cannabis users under age 21: "Don’t self-treat. Tell your parents, doctor, teacher, or school counselor of your symptoms or concerns, both physical and psychological." He and other doctors in the Society of Cannabis Clinicians strongly disagree with advice from the White House that parents who were unharmed by having smoked marijuana should lie to their children about their own experience. (One ad from the Drug Czar’s office shows a coffee cup saying "#1 Hypocrite," as if that’s something to be proud of.) Adults who can be trusted to tell the truth are much more likely to convey–to actually get across-cautionary messages such as:

Marijuana is not good for memorization, which you have to do a lot of in high school.

You can get so loaded on a brownie or even a strong joint that you shouldn’t drive.

If you get caught using marijuana you may be forced into a boring, expensive "treatment" program run by a bunch of hustlers. If your parents don’t have money or connections, you may wind up with a rap sheet.

To be on the safe side, lay off at least ’till you’ve reached full development physically (about 18).

Many parents think punishment is a highly overrated motivator. They don’t punish their kids, nor do they want the state to punish them.

The nanny state undermines family values (in the name of family values).

FRED GARDNER is the editor of O’Shaunessy’s Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group. He can be reached at: fred@plebesite.com