Saturday, April 22, 2006

Science Saturday I: The FDA Blows It on Marijuana

Medical marijuana felon and abetting wife (ca. 1978)
Politics has again trumped science as the U.S. Food and Administration announced this week there is no evidence that medical marijuana is helpful. I'm going to suggest that the FDA didn't talk to my father, but we'll get to him in a little later.

Susan Bro, a FDA spokeswoman, said the statement resulted from a combined review by federal drug enforcement, regulatory and research agencies that had concluded "smoked marijuana has no currently accepted or proven medical use in the United States and is not an approved medical treatment."

The statement directly contradicts a 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most prestigious scientific advisory agency. That review found marijuana to be
moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting.
Eleven states have legalized medical use of marijuana, most as a result of voter initiatives. But the Drug Enforcement Administration has opposed those laws and a Supreme Court decision last year allowed the feds to arrest anyone using marijuana, even for medical purposes and even in states that have legalized its use. (See also my April 20 post on SCOTUS and Flip-Flopping on States' Rights.)

The statement was vague and poorly documented, exactly what you would not expect from an agency charged with assuring rigorous testing standards, but then the FDA under the Bush administration has drifted far from the shore, so the laissez faire attitude is not unexpected.

The FDA statement disingenuously added that those state initiatives were "inconsistent with efforts to ensure that medications undergo the rigorous scientific scrutiny of the F.D.A. approval process." Disingenuous because it's no secret that the government has actively discouraged research by scientists who want to study marijuana's medical use.

The government action was the latest iteration of a perverse American socio-political dynamic that shows no sign of changing:
Dangerous substances like cigarettes and alcohol are widely available and widely abused, but marijuana is taboo although it is comparatively harmless and has medical benefits.
Said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California's attorney general, of the FDA statement:
It's consistent with the long-held federal view on this medicine, and that is that marijuana is the equivalent of heroin and cocaine. California voters disagree.
Me too.

Added the New York Times in an editorial:

[T]he F.D.A. statement, which was drafted with the help of other federal agencies that focus on drug abuse, . . . argues that state laws permitting the smoking of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation are inconsistent with ensuring that all medications undergo rigorous scrutiny in the drug approval process.

That seems disingenuous. The government is actively discouraging relevant research . . . It's obviously easier and safer to issue a brief, dismissive statement than to back research that might undermine the administration's inflexible opposition to the medical use of marijuana.

* * * * *

About my father, who is standing with my mother in the photo above, which hangs in a place of honor at Kiko's House. That's not a marijuana cigarette he's holding, but:
After he began chemotherapy for lung cancer many years ago, I made arrangements to have a little package of marijuana cigarettes sent to my mother. She stored them in the Frigidaire and doled them out to my father when his chemo-induced nausea was especially awful.

My father died before he had hardly made a dent in the package, but the cigarettes were a great source of relief for a gentle man who wouldn't hurt a soul but was then -- and still would be considered -- a criminal by the government of his beloved U.S. of A.
Reefer madness indeed!


daveminnj said...

i certainly agree with you about the politicization of the fda, and
i'll guess a lot of us
obtained herbal relief for desperately ill relatives and friends. a science question-
when i first partook, back in the
70s, it was very mild stuff $40/oz.
the stuff from even a decade later
was much more powerful (unwholesomely so, i'd say,though
many acquaintances would disagree).
what is it in marijuana that fights nausea?
would the old,grown-in-the backyard stuff work as well as the

Shaun Mullen said...

Daveminnj, I'm not a doctor, but I'll take a shot at answering your question.

Marijuana contains chemicals called cannabinoids. These include THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the main component responsible for marijuana's mind-altering effect and for some people an effective means of treating nausea and vomiting and a number of medical conditions.

Dronabinol (Marinol) is a man-made version of THC. It is available by prescription and widely used to prevent nausea and vomiting after cancer chemotherapy and to increase appetite in people with AIDS. Marinol puts the lie to the quaint notion being pedaled by the FDA that marijuana has no medical value.

When smoked or ingested, THC and other cannabinoids in marijuana attach receptors to cells in your body — like keys in a lock — affecting the cell once attached.

In addition to helping abate nausea and vomiting and stimulating appetite, marijuana has been shown to be effective for some people to help relieve the symptoms of pain, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.

I know a woman who had severe glaucoma and found that smoking marijuana eased the condition. Her ophthalmologist concurred and told her to continue doing so. She just couldn't tell anyone that he gave his approval because marijuana is, well, illegal.