Questions about pot

Has the Justice Department taken a first step toward decriminalization of marijuana?

Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post:

The Justice Department announced last week that it would not prosecute patients who legally obtain marijuana from licensed dispensaries in the 13 states that allow medicinal use. The decision is both sensible and potentially problematic.

People suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other serious ailments should not be harassed or live in fear if they abide by the laws of their state to obtain a drug that may provide relief from such symptoms as pain and nausea. Neither should those who strictly follow legal standards in dispensing marijuana from state-licensed shops. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is right to focus federal resources primarily on large-scale illegal traffickers.

Yet this policy shift leaves significant questions unaddressed, including whether the Justice Department's decision essentially constitutes a first step toward legalizing marijuana. Such an immense policy decision should not be ushered in surreptitiously, but should be tackled head-on, with a full-throated public debate about the possible benefits and consequences.

More information - good old-fashioned scientific information - is needed before the federal government or more states formally endorse marijuana smoking for medicinal use. The Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1999 published what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive study; it was decidedly mixed, listing the many possible drawbacks of smoking marijuana, including respiratory problems, while noting that such use seemed to provide some patients with relief not obtained from pills containing marijuana's active ingredients.

More recently, Dr. Peter J. Cohen, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, noted in a 2009 law review article that reputable studies released in the past few years showed that patients with AIDS and hepatitis C experienced reduced pain and nausea and were better able to tolerate traditional treatment as a result of smoking marijuana. Yet these preliminary results - as Dr. Cohen points out - have not been subjected to rigorous testing by the Food and Drug Administration. The reason: A manufacturer must submit the drug for review before the FDA will tackle the assignment. So far, no such "manufacturer" has come forward.

The medical marijuana controversy may be moot in the near future because of a drug known as Sativex, a spray mist approved for conditional use in Canada and the United Kingdom that delivers the active ingredients found in marijuana. If cleared by the FDA, patients will have some confidence that it is safe and effective. Patients have the right to know if the same can be said about smoked marijuana.

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