Editorial: Science lacking on medical marijuana

Last modified: Monday, December 24, 2012
Now is not the time for voters to approve medical marijuana, Question 3, in Massachusetts.

The question of whether Massachusetts will join 17 states and Washington, D.C., in legalizing medical marijuana will be among three binding initiatives on the ballot Tuesday. This week, a Suffolk University poll found 55 percent of voters approve of medical marijuana, while 36 percent are opposed.

But we urge caution in declaring an illegal drug a medicine without a solid foundation of scientific research. In the U.S., before a drug becomes a legal medicine, it goes through batteries of tests and clinical trials that prove and re-prove the benefits outweigh potential side effects. It takes years for a drug to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval. Because of its classification as a “Schedule 1” drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, conducting experiments and recruiting test subjects for medical marijuana research has been difficult. Schedule 1 drugs, such as marijuana, heroin and LSD, are deemed by the DEA to have a high potential for abuse and have no accepted medical use.

An appeals court in Washington, D.C., is considering whether marijuana should be reclassified — a welcome move that could set the nation on a path to remove barriers to medical marijuana research. If voters approve medical marijuana, people with a certificate to obtain it and who are registered with the Department of Public Health could go to any one of 35 legal medical marijuana centers — with no more than five in each county — and buy up to a 60-day supply, with certain restrictions. Health care insurers would not have to pay for or reimburse medical marijuana expenses.

Proponents of the question, such as the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, say marijuana is proven to provide relief of the effects of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and glaucoma. Some research finds marijuana can be useful for pain relief, nausea and seizures. Supporters also point out that Massachusetts politicians have let several bills to approve medical marijuana die in committee and federal regulations stand in the way of research the FDA needs to declare marijuana a medicine.

Opponents, including the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association and the Massachusetts Medical Society, say marijuana has not gone through the rigors necessary to prove it is medicinal. Also, the law could be exploited so that people not in need of the medicine could obtain it. In addition, they argue that legal medicines already contain the active ingredient in cannabis.

Both sides have valid arguments. While the AMA does not endorse marijuana as a medicine, in a 2009 position statement the group said controlled trials have indicated that smoking marijuana reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass and may relive pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. The AMA wants more research and the reclassification of marijuana.

Meantime, we see a gap between the intent and reality of medical marijuana laws. According to records kept by public health departments in Nevada, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona, the most common ailment for which pot is given is “severe pain,” accounting for 90 percent or more of certificates granted in each state. The ballot measure seeks to avoid problems in other states, particularly California, by requiring that anyone working or volunteering in a medical marijuana center, or legally growing it, must pass a background check and have no felony drug charge on their record.

A patient seeking marijuana must be diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition by a physician with which he or she has a bonafide doctor-patient relationship.

That still doesn’t make pot medicine, but more research could. If marijuana is ever to become a medicine, its use should square with the same standards applied to all medicines approved for sale in the U.S. For that to happen, the federal government must ease restrictions standing in the way of research. The anticipated support medical marijuana has in Massachusetts and the support it clearly has in 17 other states justifies swift and unencumbered study.