Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.

JANUARY 25, 2005
The Misguided Policy Project

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is an incompetent organization that sends well meaning supporters on fool’s errands and squanders their financial contributions on misguided, self-serving strategies that hurt the cause of reform.

Their campaign to place an initiative on the ballot in Nevada is a perfect example. The objective of the Nevada campaign is fundamentally flawed – it purports to establish legal distribution of marijuana in violation of federal law. Furthermore the measure has to be passed in each of two elections by the voters of Nevada to become state law, after which it will be struck down by the federal courts and subjected to perhaps a lengthy appeals process. If that’s not enough to qualify this campaign as a farce MPP’s ongoing failure to get the measure on the ballot is more than sufficient.

MPP doesn’t bother to figure out the fine print of Nevada’s election laws before they collect signatures for ballot access petitions. They’ve had their petitions rejected for various reasons, the most recent problem was that MPP failed to research court decisions regarding the required number of signatures – a moving target based on the most recent election. Typically, they blame their own incompetence on the “criminal behavior” of Nevada election officials. The last time MPP’s petitions were rejected they blamed it on the same “corrupt” governmental officials.

This little circus is great for fundraising though because it looks like MPP is fighting for a fundamental solution that will advance marijuana reform. Because, as stated in a recent fundraising request “no matter what Nevada's officials dream up next to stand in our way, we're not going to stop fighting ... not until we've brought an end to the government's war on marijuana users, starting in Nevada, and ultimately nationwide.”

This isn’t the only recent example of MPP’s fundraising machine in action. A week before this Nevada-oriented appeal MPP sent out a bizarre fundraising appeal trying to exploit another setback for reform. The DEA recently rejected an application from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to grow marijuana for research purposes. According to MPP “this ostensibly bad news actually provides a big boost to the Marijuana Policy Project's efforts to pass federal- and state-level medical marijuana legislation ... as well as a boost to the medical marijuana case before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

MPP claims that if approved this program would have provided marijuana for research that would have produced FDA approval of marijuana as medicine – a dubious claim at best, but certainly not sufficient to support MPP’s contention that the DEA’s decision in this matter “makes it impossible that the FDA could ever approve marijuana as a prescription medicine.” MPP needs to make this statement, no matter how misleading it is, because they need also need to be able to say that “In the Supreme Court three weeks ago, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that patients should go to the FDA to get marijuana approved as a medicine, but now the DEA has slammed the door on that possibility.” MPP needs to make these statements to justify their agenda and their incessant fundraising appeals to support it. The problem is that that these statements are not only self-serving, they are deceptive.

First of all, the FDA requires three phases of clinical studies before they will consider approving a specific pharmaceutical product for sale in the United States. The third phase involves extensive human trials and the entire process is very expensive; drug development in the United States requires enormous private sector investment of capital over a long period of time. (This is, by the way, how cannabis is being developed as medicine in Great Britain by GW Pharmaceuticals.) It is not going to be achieved by a small non-profit group or two and some research studies.

The drug approval process for cannabis requires investment to move forward, investment requires certainty, and in the area of developing marijuana as medicine in the United States certainty requires rescheduling. The oft-cited 1999 Institute of Medicine report describes the overall process as well as the importance of scheduling to the development process. Even the federal courts have recognized that in the case of marijuana it is reasonable to achieve rescheduling as a realistic step toward eventual FDA approval of the drug for marketing. But of course, as seen in Nevada, MPP is oblivious to what the courts have ruled on issues such as these. After all that sort of fine print gets in the way of a good fundraising appeal.

DEA denial of the Amherst project is regrettable but not the apocalyptic development hyped by MPP. Research grade marijuana is produced at the University of Mississippi, and even though there are well-documented complaints about its sufficiency it continues to provide a source for ongoing research. Regardless of the controversy of where research grade marijuana is produced it is ridiculous to claim that it is now impossible for the FDA to ever approve marijuana as medicine.

Furthermore Justice Breyer and his colleagues are aware of the interconnection between the FDA approval of a drug for marketing under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and its scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. He and the rest of the Supreme Court are aware of the current rescheduling proceedings – it’s mentioned in the briefs. In any event it is misleading to suggest, as MPP has above, that the rejection of the Amherst application has anything to do with the current medical marijuana case before the Supreme Court. Court decisions are based on the briefs and arguments before the Court rather than public events taking place during the Court’s deliberations.

It is equally misleading to suggest to state and federal legislators that denial of the Amherst application puts an end to federal remedies based on the current drug approval procedures. There are lots of reasons to provide legal protections for medical marijuana patients while it takes several years, at best, for the federal procedures to produce legal access for patients. The rhetorical claim that the federal “system is rigged” is a counter-productive argument for reform. While it may be just good old fashioned fundraising rhetoric, this vivid and self serving exaggeration is sufficiently transparent to federal and state legislators as to complicate rather than expedite passage of reform legislation by reinforcing cynicism on all sides. It is clear to public policy and other professionals that the Marijuana Policy Project is not out to make the system work, they’re out to work the system in order to keep the weekly, monthly, and yearly contributions rolling in.

MPP’s incompetence hurts the cause of reform. Their unwillingness to do their homework results in embarrassing setbacks for their own campaigns and for the movement at large. They reinforce the stereotype of the inattentive and lazy stoners out for a good time but unable to pay attention to detail or conventional rules. They squander resources in a misguided campaign to buy reform in small states with, on paper at least, easy ballot access. They waste money on court battles they could have avoided by working harder and smarter to begin with. They misrepresent the federal drug approval process to build themselves up as donation-worthy victims and to justify their state-level agenda. They ignore and trivialize the rescheduling process and the opportunity it provides patients to make their case in a legally relevant national forum. Out of incompetence and design they continually create excuses to avoid the real issues that matter to their financial supporters and marijuana consumers..

A simple economic concept is that of a transaction cost – by choosing to do one activity another is forsaken. The time spend in the media talking about ballot access issues in Nevada, for example, is time not spent on the need for realistic measures to reform marijuana laws. The time spent on self-serving state projects is time not spent on the urgent need for reform at the national level. MPP wants the public to believe that their state projects are stepping stones to national reform, but this too betrays their overall ignorance about public policy in the United States. Marijuana prohibition is a national policy that requires a national remedy. State level reform affects state policies; basically they make the federal prohibition less costly for the states. State level reform is valuable if it reduces arrests and sentences, but it has nothing to do with national level reform and to suggest otherwise is, well, incompetent.