Pubdate: Wed, 17 May 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Katharine Q. Seelye


Gore Retreats From Earlier Stand Supporting The Medical Use Of Marijuana

WASHINGTON - As anyone who has watched Al Gore over the years
knows, some of his positions on various topics have a way of evolving.
As the vice president himself has acknowledged, this has been true on
abortion and gun control.

There now seems to be another example: medical marijuana.

Back in December, at a town meeting in Derry, N.H., Mr. Gore indicated
that he would favor allowing marijuana to be prescribed for medical

He referred to a strikingly personal experience. His sister, Nancy
Gore Hunger, died of lung cancer in 1984 after painful chemotherapy.
She was being treated in Tennessee, where medical marijuana was legal
at the time, and her doctor -- "one of the very best in the entire
world," Mr. Gore said -- had prescribed marijuana. She tried it.

"She decided against it because she didn't like it and it didn't
produce the desired results for her," Mr. Gore told his audience that
night. "But the doctor said, 'Look, this is an option she ought to
have available, very carefully monitored and controlled.' And if it
had worked for her, I think she should have had the option."

This answer, while heartfelt, deviated sharply from the Clinton
administration's policy against medical marijuana. And Mr. Gore's
aides quickly called a news conference so that the vice president
could clarify his views.

"Look, look, let me just say that I'm opposed to anything that opens
the door to legalization of marijuana," he told reporters. He said
that the use of marijuana should be determined by science rather than
emotion but that, under certain limited circumstances and if the
research validated that choice, it should be allowed.

Then he added, "We are not at that point."

Despite what he said at the news conference, there was an unmistakable
perception -- on both sides of the issue -- that Mr. Gore had signaled
his support for the practice.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian
policy organization, hailed the vice president for his "compassionate
and sensible position."

Opponents, like the American Society of Addiction Medicine,
complained. In a letter on Dec. 29 to Mr. Gore, James F. Callahan,
executive vice president of the group, wrote that Mr. Gore's comments
"seem to be an unmistakable statement that physicians ought to have
the option of using marijuana to alleviate pain."

The letter added, "Though it was reported that in a subsequent meeting
with reporters you emphasized that you opposed legalizing marijuana
and believe more research is needed to determine whether medicinal
marijuana works, these were not the views that were stated publicly
for the American people's consumption."

Mr. Gore still gets the occasional question on this subject, as he did
last week in California, where voters approved the medicinal use of
marijuana. But now, five months after his initial indication that
doctors should have the "flexibility" to prescribe marijuana, Mr. Gore
appears to have become firmer in his opposition, even though there has
been no new research in the intervening months to indicate that
marijuana works better or worse than anyone thought in December.

"Right now the science does not show me, or the experts whose judgment
I trust, that it is the proper medication for pain and that there are
not better alternatives available in every situation," Mr. Gore said
in response to a student's question last Thursday at the Elizabeth
Learning Center in Cudahy, Calif.

The latest medical opinions suggest otherwise. In 1997 the National
Academy of Sciences asked the Institute of Medicine, its medical arm,
to evaluate all research on the subject, since more states were
passing initiatives to allow the medicinal use of marijuana and public
opinion was divided. (By now, voters in a half-dozen states and the
District of Columbia have approved the medicinal use of marijuana, and
Hawaii is on the verge of becoming the first state to pass it into
law, rather than decreeing it by ballot initiative.)

After two years of research and interviews with three dozen experts,
including those representing government agencies, the institute's
panel concluded in March 1999 that "Marijuana's active components are
potentially effective in treating pain, nausea, the anorexia of AIDS
wasting and other symptoms, and should be tested rigorously in
clinical trials," the institute said in a news release.

The panel said that smoking marijuana could cause other health
problems like cancer, lung damage and low birth-weight for babies born
to women who smoke it. For that reason, the panel said, smoking
marijuana should only be recommended for terminally ill patients or
those with debilitating symptoms that do not respond to approved
medicines. It also said that no one should smoke it for more than six

Dr. John A. Benson Jr., the co-principal investigator of the
institute's report who is the dean of the Oregon Health Sciences
University School of Medicine in Portland, said in an interview that
no new information had emerged over the last year to alter the panel's

He said there had been some experimentation with a patch system in an
effort to find an alternative to inhalation because "smoking is a poor
way of delivering medicine." And he said synthetic versions with
components of marijuana were effective for 75 percent to 90 percent of

But he added that "there are some patients that don't respond to these
better drugs," and that smoking marijuana can ease their discomfort,
particularly in cases of nausea, when patients cannot take pills.

Mr. Gore's aides insisted that the vice president's position as
articulated last week in California was no different from what he had
said at his news conference after the New Hampshire town meeting.

But Mr. Bandow of Cato, who had heard encouragement in Mr. Gore's
remarks in December, said he detected a difference now.

"I think quite clearly he's retreated," Mr. Bandow said in an

"It was an opportunity to move out there and take some new ground and
indicate some greater sophistication, and voters appreciate that."
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