Ever since voters in California and Arizona overwhelmingly passed propositions last November that permit doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, the Clinton Administration has scrambled to reconcile the new state laws with federal laws which declare the drug highly dangerous and unsuitable for medical use. Last Monday, Clinton’s drug policy chief, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, announced the administration’s decision to declare the new laws illegal. Consequently, doctors who prescribe marijuana could now be prosecuted under federal law or removed from the federal registry that allows them to write prescriptions.
There is no question that federal authorities are justified in their concerns that the new and vaguely worded laws may facilitate broad distribution of the drug for nonmedical purposes. California’s law permitting oral recommendations for marijuana is especially likely to invite widespread misuse. Nevertheless, the administration must still answer to legitimate claims from medical experts throughout the nation that severely ill patients are being denied powerful relief from their painful and sometimes deadly symptoms because fear of marijuana abuse is broad.
Gen. McCaffrey insisted there was no medical evidence to suggest that smoking marijuana has ever helped anyone. His remarks on behalf of the Clinton Administration are a slap in the face to many seriously ill patients and their doctors who say that marijuana eases pain, reduces nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy and stimulates the appetites of AIDS patients who are wasting away.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials concur with Gen. McCaffrey’s contention that marijuana has not proven more scientifically effective than alternative drugs already available on the market. Both McCaffrey and the FDEA, however, concede that there are large gaps in the research. A more thorough and committed effort on the part of the government to test expert’s claims that marijuana is an effective means of alleviating suffering is needed. For now, patients who discover that marijuana provides them with the only relief from excruciating pain should not be denied compassionate use of the drug just because other prescriptions quell discomfort among a majority of subjects in a handful of research studies.
Proposals from the administration promising to provide the National Institute of Health with federal funding to further examine the medical effectiveness of marijuana provide a more sensible way of seeking to reconcile state and federal laws than simply prosecuting doctors who proscribe the drug. But until more research is conducted government officials and law enforcement agencies in Arizona and California must not continue to deny prescriptions for marijuana to severely ill and terminal patients. Federal agencies and legal authorities in both states can instead insist on a narrow interpretation of the laws, demanding the marijuana only be distributed to people with written prescriptions of the drug for legitimate and verifiable medical purposes. The scientific disputes are bound to be controversial and may not be settled for many years. Compassion, however, should get the benefit of the doubt in the meantime.