It's a sad commentary on the federal government's antiquated stance on drugs that even the most tepid administration statements in support of medical marijuana are hailed as bold new thinking. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy elicited such a response when he said on national television this week that—brace yourself—there is "some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful."
"We have to use that data to drive policy making," he said, adding later, "I'm very interested to see where that takes us."
As obvious as Murthy's statement may be—his assessment lines up with the positions of an alphabet soup of medical associations—it is also at odds with longstanding federal policy that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which the Justice Department defines as "drugs with no currently accepted medical use."
It's not the first time an Obama administration official has acknowledged the absurdity of this policy—the president himself said as much in an interview with the New Yorker last year. Legalization advocates have crossed their fingers that these acknowledgements will eventually lead to some kind of tangible thaw in federal drug policies.
That's probably wishful thinking. Just a a few hours after Murtha's interview Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services put out a long-winded, late-night statement on the Surgeon General's behalf, "clarifying" his earlier comments about weed.
"Marijuana policy — and all public health policies — should be driven by science," the statement read. "I believe that marijuana should be subjected to the same, rigorous clinical trials and scientific scrutiny that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) applies to all new medications. The Federal Government has and continues to fund research on possible health benefits of marijuana and its components. While clinical trials for certain components of marijuana appear promising for some medical conditions, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked marijuana to meet the standards for safe and effective medicine for any condition to date."
For its part, the Justice Department said this week that it supports medical marijuana research. "Consistent with the Controlled Substances Act and regulations, the Department supports research into potential medical uses of marijuana," an agency spokesperson said in a statement to VICE. "The DEA has never denied an application for registration to conduct research with marijuana where HHS has determined that the research protocol is scientifically sound."
Of course, even if that's technically true, the federal government has never made it easy for researchers to study marijuana. Because pot is a Schedule I drug, the only legal supplier of research-grade marijuana in the country is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). As its name implies, the institute has a congressionally-mandated mission to research abuse and addiction, not the potential therapeutic effects of drugs.
However, NIDA surprised policy watchers last year when it approved a long-delayed study on marijuana's possible use in treating PTSD. The DEA also approved NIDA to significantly increase its annual marijuana harvest. Until marijuana is rescheduled, though, it will remain under the tight-fisted control of the feds, who will likely continue to limit research and thus—in a convenient catch-22—support the government's assertion that there is just too little research to justify rescheduling pot.
None of this is likely to change anytime soon, especially as federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch gears up to replace Eric Holder as US attorney general. In confirmation hearings last week, Lynch told Congress last week that she is opposed to marijuana legalization, and disagrees with the president's past comments about the dangers of the drug.
That could leave the matter up to Congress—an aide to Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul told The Daily Beast Thursday that Paul is planning to introduce a bill this year to reschedule marijuana. But while that type of legislation would likely get support from progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Paul, success seems unlikely given that most GOP leaders in Congress remain staunch Drug War hawks.
So for now at least, legalization activists and medical marijuana patients will have to be satisfied with platitudes, sound-bytes, and heavily-clarified crumbs from Obama administration officials who know science is right, but aren't ready to do anything about it.
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