Pubdate: Mon, 04 Oct 2004
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A02
Copyright: 2004 The Washington Post Company
Author: Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer
Cited: Americans For Safe Access
Related: Data Quality Act
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Convinced they have sound science on their side, advocates for the medical 
use of marijuana plan to launch a novel effort today to get the federal 
government to ease restrictions on the illicit drug.

Americans for Safe Access, a Berkeley, Calif., coalition of patients and 
doctors wanting easier access to pot for research and patient use, plans to 
file a petition with the Department of Health and Human Services charging 
the agency with spreading inaccurate information about the drug's medical 

Unlike previous efforts to ease marijuana access, which relied on the 
courts and have dragged on for years, the petition invokes the Data Quality 
Act, a little-known but powerful law that gives people the right to 
challenge scientific information disseminated by federal agencies. The law 
demands that agencies respond to petitions within two months.

The act's use by marijuana advocates represents a peculiar political twist. 
The act was written by a tobacco industry lobbyist and slipped into a huge 
piece of legislation after the 2000 election without any congressional 
discussion or debate. It has been used almost exclusively by corporations 
challenging the validity of scientific information that they fear might 
lead to costly regulations.

Many consumer groups want the act repealed, saying its wording -- and the 
fact that it is, by law, coordinated by the White House -- makes it easy 
for companies to dismiss as "junk science" damning evidence that their 
products are harmful.

But in one of the first uses of the act on behalf of a liberal, 
consumer-based cause, the new petition seeks to dismiss government 
assertions that marijuana is dangerous and medically useless, saying they 
contradict findings of the Institute of Medicine and other authoritative 

"The government's position on medical marijuana is out of touch with public 
opinion, but most important it's out of touch with the science," said 
William Dolphin, a spokesman for the Berkeley group, which plans to 
announce its action today. "It's time the federal government gets out of 
the way and lets doctors make decisions for their patients."

The petition calls for the government to correct "scientifically flawed 
statements" about marijuana published in the Federal Register, a move that 
would allow -- though not compel -- the Drug Enforcement Administration to 
declare it a "Schedule II" drug. That would allow it to be prescribed for 
specified conditions and more easily obtained for research.

Schedule II drugs, including cocaine and morphine, are tightly controlled 
because of their high potential for abuse, but less stringently than 
Schedule I drugs (LSD, peyote and marijuana among them), which by 
definition have no accepted medical use.

The petition challenges the government contention that "there have been no 
studies that have scientifically assessed the efficacy of marijuana for any 
medical condition." In fact, the group notes, a 1999 Institute of Medicine 
report concluded that studies have found marijuana helpful "for pain 
relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation."

The institute called for clinical studies to identify pot's beneficial 
ingredients and to create drug delivery systems safer than smoking.

David Murray, a policy analyst with the White House Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, agreed it is "beyond dispute" that marijuana's efficacy has 
been assessed and potential benefits identified. But he dismissed as "lame" 
another of the Berkeley group's assertions: that pot has "currently 
accepted" medical uses in the United States -- a key requirement for 
reassignment to Schedule II.

The Safe Access group cited a survey published in the New England Journal 
of Medicine finding that more than 40 percent of cancer doctors had 
recommended the drug to patients to relieve nausea from chemotherapy. The 
group also noted pot's emerging popularity among people with multiple 
sclerosis after studies suggesting the drug can reduce muscle spasticity.

But Murray said it is up to the Food and Drug Administration to decide when 
a drug has "accepted" medical use. To leave that up to doctors and 
patients, he said, is like "leaving it to fans in the Redskins' end zone to 
call a touchdown, instead of the referees."

Murray emphasized the negative health effects of marijuana smoke (studies 
show a possible increase in oral cancers) and concerns about effects on the 

But Safe Access's executive director, Steph Sherer, and the group's San 
Francisco attorney, Joe Elford, pointed to a DEA administrative law judge's 
conclusion that pot was far safer than aspirin.

"A smoker would have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within 
about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response," Judge Francis L. Young 
determined in 1988. Marijuana, he concluded, "has a currently accepted 
medical use in treatment in the United States . . . and it may lawfully be 
transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II."

The ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court but was overturned on 
procedural grounds.

Schedule I drugs are eligible for study under grants from the National 
Institute on Drug Abuse, and pot from a government farm in Mississippi is 
occasionally provided for experiments. But advocates say the hurdles to 
winning a grant are extreme.

"I can't understand why it isn't rescheduled," said John A. Benson Jr., the 
University of Nebraska Medical Center professor who led the institute 
study. Research on marijuana could probably lead to an array of useful new 
medicines, he said in a telephone interview. "But politically, socially, 
and in general, there's just a reluctance to take this on." 
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