Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tierney on FDA's medical marijuana "finding"

Following on our discussion of this the other day, John Tierney (whom I'm typically not that enamored with) has an interesting take on the issue in today's NYT:

April 25, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist

Potheads and Sudafed

By JOHN TIERNEY

Police officers in the 1960's were fond of bumper stickers reading: "The next time you get mugged, call a hippie." Doctors today could use a variation: "The next time you're in pain, call a narc."

Washington's latest prescription for patients in pain is the statement issued last week by the Food and Drug Administration on the supposed evils of medical marijuana. The F.D.A. is being lambasted, rightly, by scientists for ignoring some evidence that marijuana can help severely ill patients. But it's the kind of statement given by a hostage trying to please his captors, who in this case are a coalition of Republican narcs on Capitol Hill, in the White House and at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

They've been engaged in a long-running war to get the F.D.A. to abandon some of its quaint principles, like the notion that it's not fair to deny a useful drug to patients just because a few criminals might abuse it. The agency has also dared to suggest that there should be a division of labor when it comes to drugs: scientists and doctors should figure out which ones work for patients, and narcotics agents should catch people who break drug laws.

The drug cops want everyone to share their mission. They think that doctors and pharmacists should catch patients who abuse painkillers — and that if the doctors or pharmacists aren't good enough detectives, they should go to jail for their naïveté.

This month, pharmacists across the country are being forced to lock up another menace to society: cold medicine. Allergy and cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a chemical that can illegally be used to make meth, must now be locked behind the counter under a provision in the new Patriot Act.

Don't ask what meth has to do with the war on terror. Not even the most ardent drug warriors have been able to establish an Osama-Sudafed link.

The F.D.A. opposed these restrictions for pharmacies because they'll drive up health care costs and effectively prevent medicine from reaching huge numbers of people (Americans suffer a billion colds per year). These costs are undeniable, but it's unclear that there are any net benefits.

In states that previously enacted their own restrictions, the police report that meth users simply switched from making their own to buying imported drugs that were stronger — and more expensive, so meth users commit more crimes to pay for their habit.

The Sudafed law gives you a preview of what's in store if Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, succeeds in giving the D.E.A. a role in deciding which new drugs get approved. So far, despite a temporary success last year, he hasn't been able to impose this policy, but the F.D.A.'s biggest fear is that Congress will let the drug police veto new medications. In that case, who would ever develop a better painkiller? The benefits to patients would never outweigh the potential inconvenience to the police.

Officially, the D.E.A. says it wants patients to get the best medicine. But look at what it's done to scientists trying to study medical marijuana. They've gotten approval for their experiments from the F.D.A., but they can't get the high-quality marijuana they need because the D.E.A. won't allow it to be grown. The F.D.A. actually wants to know if the drug works, but the D.E.A. is following the just-say-know-nothing strategy: as long as researchers can't study marijuana, they can't come up with evidence that it's effective.

And as long as there's no conclusive evidence that medical marijuana works, the D.E.A. and its allies on Capitol Hill can go on blindly fighting it. Representative Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who's the most rabid drug warrior in Congress, has been pressuring the F.D.A. to crack down on medical marijuana. Last week the agency finally relented: in return for not having to start busting anyone, it issued a statement stressing the potential dangers and lack of extensive clinical trials establishing medical marijuana's effectiveness.

The statement was denounced as a victory of politics over science, but it's hard to see what political good it does the Republican Party.

Locking up crack and meth dealers is popular, but voters take a different view of cancer patients who swear by marijuana. Medical marijuana has been approved in referendums in four states that went red in 2004: Nevada, Montana, Colorado and Alaska. For G.O.P. voters fed up with their party's current big-government philosophy, the latest medical treatment from Washington's narcs is one more reason to stay home this November.

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