Pubdate: Fri, 17 Oct 2003
Source: Providence Phoenix (RI)
Copyright: 2003 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group
Author: Kristen Lombardi
Note: Additional research by Camille Dodero


Why Does The Bush Administration Seem So Intent On Denying Medical
Marijuana To Adults In Extreme Discomfort?

THE WHITE HOUSE Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) -- whose
anti-pot road show blew through Boston last week -- wants you to believe
that everything about marijuana is bad, bad, bad. That the plant's
promising medicinal benefits are simply a "Trojan-horse issue," perpetrated
by drug-reform advocates who are taking advantage of sick and dying people
to advance a decriminalization agenda.

That legalizing medical marijuana would confuse the "just say no" message
for adolescents and cause them to glamorize debilitating diseases like
cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

It's a lot to concede if you're a responsible adult who has taken the
occasional (or even frequent) toke. It's especially difficult to concede if
you're a responsible adult who smokes to ease the physical symptoms of
glaucoma, epilepsy, or asthma, among other diseases.

But that pretty much sums up the tenor at the ONDCP-sponsored New England
Anti-Drug Summit, which took place at Faneuil Hall on October 8.

Headed by ONDCP director John Walters -- a/k/a the nation's "drug czar" --
the event was part of a 25-city tour aimed at helping local leaders with
three things: "stopping drug use before it starts; healing those who are
using drugs; and disrupting the market for drug use," according to the
ONDCP Web site. To date, Walters and his entourage have traveled to San
Diego, Seattle, Detroit, and Denver. Here in Boston, the Just Say No
brigade met with New England governors, as well as health-care and
law-enforcement personnel.

They talked about the region's heroin problem (see "Baby Talk," page 27).
They introduced President George W. Bush's "Access to Recovery Treatment
Initiative," a three-year, $600 million drug-treatment program pending
before Congress. And then, they let loose on the subject of medical marijuana.

Unlike the day's other debates, this three-person panel -- Andrea
Barthwell, an ONDCP deputy director; Mark Kraus, president of the
Connecticut Society of Addiction Medicine; and Billy Martin, pharmacology
chief at Virginia Commonwealth University -- paraded reams of
disinformation. Forget about meaningful discussion. Indeed, in keeping with
the Bush administration's general assault on patients who smoke pot to
manage their illnesses (see "Domestic Stealth Bombs," News and Features,
February 28), the federal government will go to extreme lengths to prevent
the push for legalizing medical marijuana -- and last week's panel was no
exception. If anything, it amounted to a one-sided exercise suggestive of
propaganda such as Reefer Madness (1938), whose characters are driven
insane by taking a puff of a joint.

As Scott Mortimer, a Brookline resident and medical-marijuana user who
attended the October 8 summit, put it: "The event reminded me of a West
Virginia liar's contest, with panelists spinning elaborate tall tales. The
[ONDCP] policy concerning medical marijuana is always rooted in ridicule
and scorn."

IT'S NOT AS IF Mortimer, who suffers from paralyzing back pain, and other
proponents of medical marijuana didn't see the propaganda fest coming.

By 9 a.m. last Wednesday, he and two dozen or so patients and drug-reform
advocates had gathered outside Faneuil Hall to protest what they dubbed the
ONDCP's "whitewash." After all, no one in favor of legalizing marijuana for
medicinal purposes had been included on the list of handpicked speakers.
This, despite the fact that the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), in
Washington, DC, had hounded the ONDCP for a chance to be heard.

Local MPP members had suggested panelists.

They'd offered to submit testimony.

They'd asked to sit in the audience.

Yet their requests were denied.

Says MPP communications director Bruce Mirken, "[ONDCP officials] clearly
know there will be opposition wherever they go, and they're trying to avoid

And the opposition at Faneuil Hall specifically set out to counter the
slanted rhetoric flowing from summit speakers.

Walters is coming to town to spread lies!" while handing out fliers to
preoccupied professionals and tourists. They lectured wayward passers-by on
the miracle of pot for people suffering from chronic pain, nausea, and
physical tremors.

Inside the hall, the ONDCP set the tone straightaway. Barthwell, who's
become the ONDCP mouthpiece on medical marijuana by penning op-eds against
the cause for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, the Kansas City
Star, and Newsday, kicked off her remarks with a blunt statement of
opposition. Medical marijuana, she said, is "the worst scam" drug
legalizers have perpetrated on this country.

She went on to dissect the scientific research.

Interestingly, she and her fellow panelists fixated on the fact that
patients who use marijuana for medicinal purposes typically have to smoke
it -- a delivery method that, they claimed, isn't "scientifically proven."
Smoking weed, they reasoned, goes against modern medicine, which shuns
cigarettes, and which has an arsenal of legal prescription drugs that
alleviate pain and nausea at its disposal.

As Barthwell declared, "No legitimate 21st-century physician would
recommend that patients smoke or chew opium." Yet "frauds in white coats,"
she said, are encouraging seriously ill patients to inhale dope rather than
participate in the latest drug regimens. "Is that the best that
21st-century medicine has to offer?" she demanded.

The idea that crude pot has medicinal value, she added, "is an insult" to
modern medicine.

Kraus, of the Society of Addiction Medicine, echoed the sentiment. "For
each disease that's been treated by smoking marijuana," he insisted,
"there's an accepted and more effective alternative treatment." Even
Marinol, a synthetic pill of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound found
in marijuana, which the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has
approved for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, is better than weed.
The raw plant, he said, "has not passed the rigors of scientific examination."

Only one panelist, Virginia pharmacology professor Martin, had the courage
to buck the status quo by acknowledging that marijuana has, in fact, helped
patients. But he quickly got back on message.

He noted the lack of research proving pot's medicinal benefits. "We have a
choice," he explained, "and it's a simple one." Do we want to devote money
and effort to determine whether marijuana has a place in medicine or not?
As he sees it, the issue isn't "worth the resources."

On closer scrutiny, the panel itself is what doesn't seem worth it. The
primary argument that smoking marijuana has no medicinal benefit comes
across as disingenuous, to say the least.

For one thing, it ignores published research -- more than 8858 medical
articles' worth -- on marijuana. Most of these studies have examined the
medicinal effects of the plant's cannabinoids, including THC, CBN, and CBD.
Many of them detail research involving patients in countries like the
Netherlands, Canada, and Great Britain. In the US, one of the more
definitive surveys came in 1999, after former drug czar Barry McCaffrey
commissioned the National Institute of Medicine to conduct a two-year
examination of the matter.

The study, "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base," concludes
that cannabinoids have clear therapeutic benefits, "particularly for
symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite
stimulation." Thus, it boggles the mind that panelists would try to say
smoking pot has no medicinal value, since it still delivers cannabinoids.
Steve Fox, the MPP's director of government relations, likens the
contention to "saying smoked cigarettes don't give people nicotine.

It doesn't make sense."

IN THE END, the anti-drug summit was a disservice to New Englanders.
Medical marijuana, after all, is no longer a fringe issue.

Just this week, the US Supreme Court turned down the Bush administration's
request that it consider whether the federal government can punish doctors
for even talking about the medicinal benefits of pot -- thereby paving the
way for state laws that legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

To date, nine states have enacted such legislation. Maine may be the only
state in the region to do so, but the rest of the area isn't far behind.

Last year, a medical-marijuana bill made it to the desk of former Vermont
governor Howard Dean, who vetoed it. Already, the bill has been refiled.

Connecticut drug reformers are pushing to expand a 1981 state law allowing
doctors to prescribe patients marijuana -- a law that Rowland, then a state
representative, supported.

Though the effort failed last summer, advocates plan to re-introduce
amendments to protect medical-marijuana patients next February. In
Massachusetts, a similar bill that would create legal protections for
medical-marijuana patients is now pending before the legislature. And New
Hampshire advocates are ambushing Democratic presidential candidates to get
them on record about the issue. (The most favorable? Dennis Kucinich, who's
promised to sign an executive order legalizing pot for medicinal purposes
if he's elected president.)

Given the issue's momentum in New England, the ONDCP panel could have
engaged in much-needed debate.

Yet panelists refused to consider the real questions. And the governors
failed to take the issue seriously.

Instead, the summit toed the Bush-administration line. It was easy for New
England governors to do that in a gilded hall huddled together with the
drug czar, as Robert Rooke, who heads the Connecticut drug-reform group A
Better Way Foundation, points out. "But to do that in a room full of
patients who need marijuana and have to go underground to get it is a whole
other story."
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