In early November 2015, the acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration was talking with reporters when one of their questions caught his attention.
“What really bothers me,” began Chuck Rosenberg, “is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not. We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine — that is a joke.”
It’s impressive Rosenberg, still the DEA’s acting administrator, fit so much misinformation into that last sentence
First he stepped up to the mound, setting a standard for “an intellectually honest” conversation. Then he wound up for the pitch, calling out cannabis as “bad” and “dangerous.” And then he hurled the ball toward home plate, saying the concept of marijuana as medicine is “a joke” as he urged people, “Don’t call it medicine.”
Rosenberg’s defiant statement was as appalling as it was unsurprising. While Rosenberg was dissenting with a clear majority of Americans and a growing number of scientists and physicians who view cannabis as a medicinal substance, he was also faithfully representing the DEA, whose mission “is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States.”
And because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act… blah blah, you’re well familiar with the many state-versus-federal conflicts at play here.
And of course Rosenberg wasn’t the first to scoff at the concept of medical marijuana. Just ask any Californian old enough to have witnessed America’s first successful MMJ campaign, Proposition 215 in 1996.
But as America continues to uncomfortably settle into this post-prohibition era, it’s time to set the record straight once and for all on the subject of marijuana as medical remedy: According to the most stringent medical researchers in the world, cannabis is medicine.
I know, you’ve been saying this for years. Maybe your health or well-being has benefitted directly from marijuana, or perhaps one of your loved ones has successfully treated a condition with weed. But while this important anecdotal evidence is the very foundation for the entire medical cannabis movement, it’s not enough for medical professionals and organizations that require a deeper understanding of just how this plant is helping people suffering from extreme pain, PTSD and other conditions.
And that’s where a landmark report from the esteemed National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine comes in. Released in January 2017, the report says there is conclusive evidence of marijuana’s efficacy as a treatment for specific conditions including “chronic pain in adults,” “multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms” and “chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.”
The groundbreaking report, according Drug Policy Alliance deputy director of national affairs Michael Collins, was “vindication for all the many researchers, patients and healthcare providers who have long understood the benefits of medical marijuana.”
The National Academy of Sciences report echoed the findings of an important 2015 analysis, which was based on 79 trials involving nearly 6,500 participants and published in the respected Journal of the Medical American Association.
As I wrote about the groundbreaking report for The Denver Post:
“The new analysis shows that medical pot has helped patients with severe pain, nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy and spasticity from multiple sclerosis. But when it comes to the numerous other qualifying conditions that make up most medical marijuana programs, which vary tremendously from state to state and often include PTSD, glaucoma, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, the report says the evidence isn’t there.”
Without going too deep into a different (if closely related) rabbit hole, let it be said that most cannabis research in America has been strong-armed by the federal government. As noted researcher Sue Sisley told me in June 2015: “The research on the efficacy of marijuana has been systematically impeded by the federal government for two decades. That (the analysis’ authors) are suddenly wanting to call out the lack of science, it’s such hypocrisy it’s sickening.”
But even after we’ve taken the government barriers into consideration, we’re still left with a worldwide medical authority telling us that marijuana has been proven to help those suffering from severe pain, nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy and spasticity from multiple sclerosis.
And not only is that a great start — a list of the known conditions cannabis has been scientifically proven to help — it’s also a resounding endorsement of marijuana as medicine.
The JAMA analysis and others were enough to get the attention of David Casarett — a physician, researcher and the chief of palliative care services for the Duke University Health System who has been published in JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine. When I asked the professor in 2016 about his medical cannabis “a-ha” moment, he said that National Academy of Sciences research changed everything for him.
“That moment really came when I realized that there were medical benefits,” Casarett, the author of “Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana,” told me. “For me, that flipped the debate. Now we were talking about a substance that has benefits and risks, not just risks. And in my mind, that made cannabis seem to be in the same box as many other legal drugs I prescribe. Once I realized that medical cannabis offers benefits, the question became whether, when and how to use it safely, rather than how to ban it.”
Of course the marijuana-as-medicine debate lives on when based on the various definitions of medicine. Is cannabis a medicine per the Food and Drug Administration or the Controlled Substances Act? No, because “marijuana fails to meet any of [the] five criteria for accepted medical use in the United States,” as Harvard Medical School professor Bertha Madras wrote in the Washington Post.
But what about Merriam-Webster’s definition of medicine: “a substance or preparation used in treating disease.”
The debate is settled, friends. And regardless of what the DEA, FDA or CSA say, cannabis is a legitimate medicine.
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