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Psst... Government-Supplied Marijuana Program Turns 30
May 7, 2008 -

By Bruce Mirken

Each month Irvin Rosenfeld goes to his pharmacy and picks up a special prescription, supplied to him by the U.S. government: a canister containing roughly 10 ounces of marijuana in pre-rolled cigarettes.

Rosenfeld, a Boca Raton, Florida stockbroker, suffers from a rare illness called multiple congenital cartilaginous exostosis, a painful genetic disease that causes tumors to grow at the ends of his long bones, causing unbelievable pain. He is also one of four surviving patients receiving government-supplied medical marijuana, in a program that was closed to new applicants by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

That program marks its 30th anniversary May 10. That's right, our government has been supplying medical marijuana to a small number of patients -- the program peaked at 34 approved participants in 1991 -- for three full decades.

This may seem puzzling. After all, hasn't White House Drug Czar John Walters called medical marijuana "snake oil," a "con," a "farce," and even compared it to "medicinal crack"? Surely if our government really thinks marijuana is useless and dangerous, it wouldn't supply it to sick people?

A better question might be: Why is our government working so hard to avoid learning that marijuana can be a safe and effective medicine?

The federal medical marijuana program, begun on May 10, 1978 as part of the settlement to a lawsuit filed by glaucoma patient Robert Randall, is officially a research program. Randall, Rosenfeld and the other participants were required to sign a consent document specifically referring to it as a "study."

But there has been no study of these patients, at least not by the government. While shipping literally hundreds of pounds of marijuana to these patients over the course of 30 years, the federal government never lifted a finger to find out whether it was helping or hurting.

In frustration, a handful of the patients worked with researchers a few years ago to organize and fund a study of four of the eight still alive in 2001 (the others were either too ill to participate or chose to remain anonymous). Each was subjected to an exhaustive battery of medical tests, including immunological and endocrine assays, MRI scans of the brain, pulmonary function tests, neuropsychological tests and more.

The study, published in 2002, found, "Results demonstrate clinical effectiveness [of marijuana] in these patients in treating glaucoma, chronic musculoskeletal pain, spasm and nausea, and spasticity of multiple sclerosis. All 4 patients are stable with respect to their chronic conditions, and are taking many fewer standard pharmaceuticals than previously." The only meaningful side effect noted was "mild changes in pulmonary function" in two of the patients -- not surprising, given that investigators found the government's marijuana to be a "crude, low-grade product."

In testimony before the Illinois state legislature two years ago, Rosenfeld called himself "living proof that [marijuana] works well. I'm also living proof that the government doesn't want to know how well it works. If they want to do research, all they have to do is contact me."

Federal officials claim they have no bias against medical marijuana research. The government has indeed allowed a handful of small pilot studies to proceed, and the ones published so far have consistently found marijuana to be safe and effective at relieving symptoms such as pain and appetite loss.

Typically in science, successful pilot studies lead to larger, more advanced trials. And there is a group of researchers at the University of Massachusetts who want to do just that: grow specially selected strains of marijuana for studies in treating specific conditions, designed to develop marijuana as an FDA-approved prescription drug.

The government is blocking them.

Instead of learning from the private study of the federal medical marijuana patients and the handful of other medical marijuana trials it has permitted, federal officials have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, repeating, "Marijuana is not a medicine," as if saying so would make it true.

The hypocrisy and dishonesty continue, and patients -- except for those four lucky survivors -- continue to suffer.


Bruce Mirken is director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

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