Tuesday, June 5, 2006 | The French have a proverb: “You don’t catch flies with vinegar.” It is a truth in many aspects of our daily life here in San Diego, close by the Mexican border, and it is particularly applicable to the “War on Drugs” in our region.

As I suggested in my last article on the subject, the major casualty of the “War on Drugs” has been the truth. Problems are never solved by deception. Well meaning but misguided attempts to frighten the people by misleading them have conspicuously failed. That has only created a severe credibility problem in that few people now believe what government and some private organizations with a bridge to sell you are dishing out on this frenzied subject.

The result is that the illicit drug problem in the United States has reached alarming proportions, affecting lives, health and the social order. It will not be controlled unless and until the truth becomes the defining vehicle of a solution. As an example of what I mean, let me expose some facts about marijuana, the most pervasive of the illicit drugs in our society.

Marijuana is the flowering top, leaves and small stem cuttings of cannabis, a plant of the hemp family, used for thousand of years to make rope, fabric and paper. Its use as a drug is at least as old. During World War II, the demand for rope in the United States increased a hundred fold and the government encouraged its cultivation.

As a result, the cannabis plant can be found growing wild throughout much of the nation. Marijuana was discovered to be a sought-after recreational drug after the beginning of World War I, when California enacted the first of a series of state laws making it illegal.

Its reputation for being a dangerous drug is the result of a seemingly authoritative mass of testimony and articles such as Scientific American (May 1938) calling it “more dangerous than cocaine or heroin” and Newsweek (November 1938) claiming it a “dangerous and devastating narcotic.”

Although marijuana can pose health problems for users, as has been researched and reported, such as in the massive “Marijuana: Biological Effects” (Pergamon Press 1979), the hysterical outcry of its dangers has been grossly overdone. Marijuana is probably not addictive, its use does not lead to violence, nor is it the entry drug for more dangerous illicit drugs.

No fatality has as yet been solely attributed to its use. The ultimate insanity was provided on April 20 by the FDA when it issued a statement claiming that smoked marijuana has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

This statement flies in the face of extensive contrary evidence. In 1999, for example, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the United States’ most authoritative and responsible scientific and clinical organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, published a report in which evidence was adduced that sound scientific information supports the medical use of smoked marijuana for short periods.

Although marijuana smoke contains some of the same harmful substances found in tobacco smoke, some of its active components do offer what is known as bioavailability, special – and in this case beneficial – attributes not otherwise available to some multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer patients.

The April 20 FDA report conveniently forgets that cannabis is being used as medicine worldwide, and that it has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years. In fact the U.S. government has been licensing for years a single major medical synthetic cannabis component under the name, Marinol, for use by selected patients.

The problems with Marinol are many, including the complaint by patients that it gives them a high they neither want nor need, that it is much less effective than smoking the weed form of marijuana, that it requires considerable bureaucratic justification to get prescribed, and that it is far more expensive than the plain weed to boot.

Scientists recognize that there are legitimate scientific and clinical questions about marijuana that deserve to be elucidated. It would seem to be obvious that such research should be encouraged, but alas, this is just not the case in the United States.

Because marijuana is illegal, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will not license researchers to grow it for research. For example, Dr. Lyle Craker from the University of Massachusetts has been trying for years to get permission from the DEA to grow marijuana for research, but that repeated application has been turned down.

The DEA is both judge and jury in the matter. The denied application is on appeal before a quasi-judicial DEA judge (I am not kidding), with a decision likely to be handed down sometime this summer.

Dr Craker points out the “Catch 22” he and his colleagues are facing: The DEA insists that marijuana offers no medical benefits because not enough research has been done, but the DEA refuses to let Dr. Craker do that kind of research. Now even if the DEA “judge” decides the appeal in favor of Dr. Craker, the DEA chief administrator can still decide to reject the decision.

The DEA is not a scientific organization. It is a political one charged with enforcing drug laws. It should not have the responsibility to decide scientific and clinical issues. That is the province of the FDA, which is charged to determine whether a drug or a device is effective and safe.

One FDA official once told me “We don’t give a damn about the science.” And that statement faithfully mirrors a central problem facing our country.

Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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