Pubdate: Sun, 02 Mar 2014
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
Copyright: 2014 PG Publishing Co., Inc.
Author: Cyril Wecht
Note: Cyril Wecht is a former Allegheny County coroner and medical 
examiner and a highly regarded consultant on medical-legal issues and 
forensic pathology.


Let's Get Past the Propaganda and Allow Doctors to Prescribe 
Marijuana, Argues Forensic Pathologist Cyril Wecht

Over the course of my 52-year professional career as a forensic 
pathologist and medicolegal consultant, I have been involved in 
numerous civil and criminal lawsuits dealing with various kinds of 
drugs - prescription, over-the-counter and illicit. Some of these 
cases have been quite significant, including a few that have been the 
subject of congressional hearings.

Product liability and medical malpractice lawsuits involving drugs 
frequently result in multimillion-dollar verdicts. In other 
instances, the determination of which drugs may have led to someone's 
death may provide the evidentiary basis for charging the provider 
with homicide.

Occasionally, some questions and doubts remain among medical 
practitioners as to the effectiveness of a particular drug and when 
it should be prescribed. However, almost all drug-related issues of 
this sort eventually get resolved. Some dangerous drugs have been 
removed from the marketplace, while others have been modified. Many 
times, pharmaceutical companies have been obliged to issue more 
definitive warnings about potential adverse drug reactions. There 
have been few long-lingering debates of a highly contentious, emotional nature.

There is one fascinating exception: marijuana.

Amazingly, the intellectual, medical, legal, societal and 
governmental debates about cannabis sativa continue with no 
definitive official resolution in sight.

What is the principal reason for the inability of our society to 
decide whether marijuana should become a legally prescribed drug?

The answer is Harry Anslinger.

Demonizing marijuana

Born in Altoona in 1892, Anslinger married a niece of Andrew W. 
Mellon, who, as secretary of the treasury, appointed Anslinger as the 
first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and started him 
off with a budget of $100,000 in 1930. Anslinger remained the head of 
the bureau for 32 years.

Harry Anslinger never became too concerned about heroin in those 
years because it was looked upon essentially as a problem limited to 
the African-American community and worthless drug addicts. What 
turned him on was the increasing use of marijuana among Caucasian 
high school and college students.

Anslinger undertook a propaganda campaign against marijuana that was 
even more intensive than the one directed at alcohol during the years 
of Prohibition. This campaign was mimicked in later years by Sen. 
Joseph McCarthy (a heroin addict and close friend of Anslinger's) 
vis-a-vis allegations of communism.

I recall the movie "Reefer Madness" that Anslinger was largely 
responsible for, an incredible example of government-orchestrated 
propaganda that has been viewed on college campuses since the 1960s 
as a delightful parody.

The mythology of marijuana orchestrated by the vicious bias and 
intense zealotry of Anslinger became deeply embedded in the minds of 
Americans, and it has remained essentially unchallenged by mainstream 
society for more than 70 years.

Making it illegal

Marijuana, a compound derived from hemp that has been around for 
millennia and which was legal throughout most of American history, 
became illegal with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act by Congress 
in 1937. For those who find it difficult to comprehend how their 
parents and grandparents could have been so misled, here are some 
quotes attributed to Anslinger that created the political background 
leading to the 1937 act.

"There are 100,000 total marihuana smokers in the United States, and 
most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their 
Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marihuana use. This 
marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, 
entertainers and any others."

"... the primary reason to outlaw marihuana is its effect on the 
degenerate races."

"Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, 
criminality and death."

"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

"Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing."

"You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother."

"Marihuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."

As a direct result of the scientific nonsense foisted upon the 
American public by Anslinger and his supporters (including the 
powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), marijuana came 
to be considered by most people as a potentially deadly narcotic.

Despite strong criticism in the "Joint Report on Narcotic Addiction" 
prepared by the American Medical Association and the American Bar 
Association, and completely ignoring the findings of an in-depth 
study by a special committee appointed by New York Mayor Fiorello La 
Guardia in 1939, which concluded that "the practice of smoking 
marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the 
word," Anslinger and his band of zealots and political opportunists 
succeeded in convincing the American public that marijuana was the 
most dangerous drug imaginable.

I recall that when I spoke about drug abuse to students and other 
groups during the years I was in the Allegheny County coroner's 
office (1966-1980), I would point out that marijuana was not a 
narcotic insofar as universally accepted pharmacological-chemical 
categorization was concerned. Many teachers, parents and other adults 
were quite unhappy with my comments. They chose to believe that 
marijuana was the worst possible drug and that any suggestion to the 
contrary was unacceptable.

Updating the science

Over the past several years, a more objective, scientific evaluation 
of marijuana has been undertaken. While some medical professionals 
and scientists continue to express concern about marijuana, most 
reports have demonstrated that it is a mild hallucinogenic drug 
rather than a powerful analgesic. Marijuana is not an addictive drug 
that leads to physiological habituation and tolerance. Arguably, some 
individuals who use marijuana on a frequent basis may develop a 
psychological dependence. Such people are seeking an emotional 
crutch, and they may find marijuana to be safer, cheaper and more 
pleasurable than alcohol.

Colorado and Washington have now completely legalized marijuana and 
18 other states have decriminalized it - even though marijuana use 
and possession is still illegal under federal law.

I have performed approximately 18,000 autopsies, and I have 
supervised or reviewed approximately 38,000 additional post-mortem 
reports since 1957. As a forensic pathologist performing autopsies on 
hundreds of people each year who die as a result of drug toxicity, I 
have never signed out a death due to cannabis, nor have I ever seen 
such an autopsy report from any other forensic pathologist.

Drugs known to cause death are legally available for numerous medical 
problems and are widely prescribed by physicians. Oxycodone, 
hydrocodone, vicodin and other opioids, as well as tranquilizers, 
sedatives, antidepressants and anxiolytic drugs, are prescribed in 
large amounts every day by thousands of physicians throughout the 
United States, even though it is well known that these drugs have 
produced an epidemic wreaking havoc throughout the country. There are 
now more deaths directly caused by these drugs each year in the 
United States than are caused by motor-vehicle accidents.

Numerous reports of sick individuals experiencing significant 
improvement from therapeutically administered marijuana have been 
documented. Patients suffering from late-stage cancer, neurological 
degenerative diseases, uncontrolled epilepsy and other serious, 
chronic, irreversible pathological processes have benefited greatly 
from the use of marijuana. It does not cure disease, but it can 
alleviate physical and emotional pain and suffering.

There simply is no rational reason, medical logic or justifiable 
legal basis for the refusal of the federal government and most states 
to decriminalize marijuana. It should be moved from a Schedule I 
category and allowed to be manufactured by pharmaceutical companies 
in the same controlled fashion that opioids and other dangerous drugs 
are handled commercially throughout the country.

Wasting lives, resources

Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested and incarcerated 
for mere possession of marijuana. The amount of time, effort and 
money expended by law enforcement agencies, courts, and local and 
state governments responsible for the upkeep of prisons is immeasurable.

Law enforcement agencies should direct their attention to the 
distribution of illicit drugs - e.g., heroin, methamphetamine and 
cocaine - as well as the excessive, indiscriminate prescribing and 
dispensing of dangerous drugs by physicians and pharmacists who are 
indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

I do not believe marijuana should be made available on the open 
market, such as recently permitted in Colorado and Washington. People 
should not be allowed to simply walk into a store and buy 
marijuana-laced cookies or other forms of the drug as if they were 
pieces of candy. This likely would lead to greater dependence on 
marijuana by more people. But, while any kind of chemical dependence 
is neither physically healthy nor psychologically sound, the most 
egregious example of this in our society is the consumption of 
alcoholic beverages.

It is time for the mythology of marijuana to be exposed and set 
aside. A scientifically objective, societally reasonable and legally 
just approach should be adopted that would allow for the appropriate 
medical use of marijuana. A relatively mild drug that does not lead 
to death and which can alleviate physical and emotional pain and 
suffering deserves to be added to the therapeutic armamentarium of 
American medicine. Such a policy would be beneficial in many ways.

It is long overdue for the legacy of scientific ignorance, racial 
bigotry and political fanaticism that has seriously damaged so many 
lives to be exposed, dissected and buried. The bond between the 
long-deceased Harry Anslinger and modern-day society needs to be broken.
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