Challenging the DEA's War on Medical Marijuana

By Conor Friedersdorf

The federal agency insists it has no legitimate use. So are all the cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis patients lying?

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Can I interest you in a cross-country trip? Its theme is Anti-Empiricism in America. The tour bus leaves from The Bay Area, where a lot of people still think rent control works. It proceeds through Salt Lake City, where the Evergreen Institute claims to cure same sex attraction, passes through Petersburg, Ky., home of the Creationist Museum, and terminates in Springfield, Va., where the DEA, a liberty impinging branch of the federal government, insists against overwhelming evidence that a plant called marijuana "has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision."

That dubious determination is what keeps marijuana classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the only kind that cannot be prescribed by physicians. It is more tightly controlled than raw opium, methadone, and anabolic steroids, among many other drugs far more harmful to the human body, and more prone to abuse than cannabis.

Is that something the DEA can defend in court?

Americans For Safe Access (ASA) intends to find out. The advocacy group has spent years petitioning to change marijuana's designation so that doctors can prescribe it to patients. Last month, the DEA officially denied their request. In response, the group intends to sue. "The federal government is making no bones about its aggressive policy to undermine medical marijuana," said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. "And we're prepared to take the Obama administration to court over it."

Though most people don't know it, there is precedent for suing the federal government for access to medical marijuana and winning. On the verge of going blind in his early twenties, the late Robert C. Randall turned to marijuana after discovering that it relieved the symptoms of his glaucoma. It worked. In order to maintain a supply, he grew marijuana on his Washington D.C. sun deck. Police arrested him. "I argued that any sane person who knew they were going blind, who knew that marijuana would prevent them from going blind, would break the law to obtain marijuana," he recalled. Surprisingly, the courts agreed, and soon afterward, he began receiving marijuana legally from the federal government, a fact he publicized, resulting in the termination of his supply.
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"They were willing to let me go blind to maintain the fiction that marijuana has no medical use," he said in the video above. He sued. Rather than go to court again, the federal government reached a settlement that required it to establish the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program. At its peak, 30 people were getting their marijuana legally from the federal government, the entity now claiming that the drug "has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision." George H.W. Bush ended the program, but as many as 5 patients are currently grandfathered in and still receiving marijuana.

Here is one participant's story:
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Would the head of the DEA have the guts to look him square in the eye and assert that marijuana has no legitimate medical use? Unlikely. Would Bill Bennett, the former drug czar and prohibition advocate, be willingly to publicly debate him? I doubt it. Here is what candidate Barack Obama had to say on the subject before he was president:

I have more of a practical view than anything else. My attitude is that if it's an issue of doctors prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma, or as a cancer treatment, I think that should be appropriate, because there really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything else. I think there is a legitimate concern about not wanting people to grow their own ... but using medical marijuana in the same way with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that's entirely appropriate.

You'd think a man who understands that the drug has medical uses -- who therefore believes that there are sick people who aren't getting a useful medicine due to the DEA's designation -- would push for change.

Nope.

Despite legal obstacles to conducting medical research with marijuana, there is all sorts of evidence (.pdf), beyond personal testimony, that it has legitimate medicinal uses. But I actually think that hearing the stories of actual medical marijuana users is as powerful as any study.

I dare anyone to tell me this woman is just out to get high:
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Image credit: Reuters

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