By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp
In spring 2013, shortly before medical marijuana legislation passed in Illinois, I called a suburban police chief who was a formidable opponent of the bill. He had become a national hero in the Reagan years for his service to our country. We had a good conversation. But as I started to push for his support, he muttered, with guttural defiance, “Marijuana is not medicine. It’s just a weed.”
The chief cannot say this anymore. If he does, he will now be taking on the American Medical Association. The June 23 issue of the AMA Journal contains two major articles that survey much of the existing research on the effectiveness of cannabis as medicine. The lead piece concludes, “There was moderate evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain and spasticity.” (p 2474) Cautious perhaps, but for the AMA, this is akin to Justice Scalia supporting Obamacare.
The support was by no means one-sided. “Medical marijuana is used to treat a host of indications, a few of which have evidence to support treatment with marijuana and many that do not.” (p 2474)
These and other qualifying comments give critics leeway to argue against medical marijuana. Not surprisingly, Fox News led with the more negative of the analysis’ findings. In an over-the-top spasm of opposition, The Champaign Gazette News in Illinois wrote that supporters of medical marijuana are “poseurs (who) rely on anecdotes, public opinion and first-person testimonials rather than sound scientific evidence to pursue their political agenda.” (To their credit, the paper printed my op-ed rebuttal.)
What then, are we to make of the findings? At the end of the day they are positive. Those who used the JAMA articles to discredit medical marijuana lacked critical integrity in two respects. Some simply ignored the positive findings. More frequently, skeptics failed to distinguish between studies that claim to disprove effectiveness, and those that say the evidence is incomplete or inconclusive. The JAMA surveys did the latter.
Perhaps the most significant thing to be said at this point, therefore, is that even the critics of medical marijuana are now opening the doors to more research. For years, they argued that marijuana could not be considered as medicine because did not have approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of course not. The federal government continues to classify marijuana as a schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use.” The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the only legal source of marijuana and it generally has not made it available for research. The hypocrisy of this approach is clear.
But this is beginning to change. Three weeks ago the Obama administration removed the U.S. Department of Public Health as an additional layer of review. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) is easing its restrictions.
Why is this happening? Marijuana helps people who otherwise would live with severe, sometimes intractable pain due to Crohn’s Disease, cancer, and ALS. Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states containing over half our population. All over the country, individuals increasingly know someone who has been helped. In Illinois, key legislators voted for the bill because they had a friend, perhaps even a relative, who had experienced the relief of severe suffering.
During the long struggle for medical marijuana in Illinois, it was jarring to hear such individuals dismissed as “anecdotes.” But over the past several years, even the American Medical Association has realized that it must stop ignoring the overwhelming evidence that marijuana alleviates pain and start advising their doctors on how to use it. The June 23 issue of JAMA marks this new reality. It is a significant milestone.
To learn more about this topic, visit our Take Action page on Medical Marijuana.