Nora Volkow, Celebrity: NIDA Surge Seeks to Contain Marijuana Use


The New York Times ran a Q&A with Nora Volkow in its Sunday Review section January 3. Such a piece would ordinarily run in the Science section, since Volkow is a neurological researcher who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But the lady’s taste in literature, the cinema, and music is of interest to the general reader, the Times’ editors think. Nora Volkow is a celebrity —or someone is striving to make her one.

Interviewer Kate Holmes asks Volkow what she is “following,” and Volkow makes reference to her own work as an addiction specialist:

 I don’t follow anything. I am an oddity. But the National Institutes of Health provides us every day a list of key relevant items in journals. For example, a study on sleep, how it is a cleaning process in the brain, which changed my own research. I’ve been obsessed to try to understand what are these mechanisms because sleep is a challenge in the treatment of people with addictions. If they can’t sleep, they may go back to marijuana or drink alcohol to relax. Also, when we are sleep-deprived our ability to exert self-regulation is degraded, so we are more likely to take risks or binge.

Note Volkow’s casual, matter-of-fact equation of alcohol and marijuana (which unbiased scientists tend to refer to as “cannabis”) as addictive substances.

I admit that I was once intrigued by this woman —the fact that she’s Leon Trotsky’s great-granddaughter, a look that I mistook for fierce intelligence— and wrote a song about her.  But in the photo accompanying the Times Q&A, Volkow’s look is one of smugness, and her bias seems unscientific.

Also revealing about the Volkow Q&A is her comment about reading only the NIH “list of key relevant items in journals.” (NIDA is a branch of NIH.) Tremendous power is exercised by the NIH officials who decide which papers to include in that list and which to exclude. None dare call it censorship, but Science and Medicine are structured nowadays so that extremely powerful and virtually invisible bureaucrats decide what research to deem kosher and worthy of promotion, and what to ignore. The “key relevant items” provide cues for career-minded scientists.

(NIDA itself has a publication called “NIDA Notes” to alert the media which “advances” are newsworthy. The blockbuster 2005 study by UCLA pulmonologist Donald Tashkin and colleagues showing that smoking marijuana does not cause lung cancer was buried by NIDA Notes when the results proved disappointing to the editors —although the study had been funded by NIDA.)

The promotion of Dr. Nora Volkow to celebrity status is part of a big public relations surge in which NIDA is taking credit for acknowledging the medical potential of cannabis. Under Dr. Volkow’s enlightened direction NIDA has approved numerous research projects, and paid Mahmoud ElSohly to vastly expand his grow op at Ol’ Miss. A ripple of the surge has even reached federal patient Irvin Rosenfeld, who reports that the cigarettes he gets from NIDA have been strengthened from 3.3% THC to 4%.

In June 2015, Dr. Volkow testified before the U.S. Senate Drug Caucus about expediting research into CBD. Asked by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey if “availability for research would be better if [marijuana production] was not a monopoly?” Volkow said, “Correct.” Read her testimony in the new O’Shaughnessy’s. 

NIDA is the lead organizer of a conference coming up in March 2016, modestly entitled “Marijuana and Cannabinoids: a Neuroscience Research Summit.”  Real experts will be explaining the endocannabinoid system and discussing the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids. The catch is, psychiatrists and neuroimagers will be afforded equal credibility as they update their warnings that marijuana can be addictive and cause permanent, detrimental changes in the brain when used by young people.

What looks like a surge by NIDA is actually a retrenchment by the Drug Warriors who control federal policy. The Big Lie of  “no medical use”  has been exposed by the reality of more than a million Americans using cannabis (with physician approval) to alleviate a vast range of symptoms. So now they’re pushing the Fallback Lie, which is subtler and harder to refute: a 9% addiction rate and damage to the developing brain.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at