A Register-Guard Editorial

Published: Monday, May 1, 2006

The FDA should change its name to the Politically Approved Food and Drug Administration - PAFDA. It's a longer acronym, but it rolls off the tongue nicely and people would appreciate its greater honesty.

The agency's other option is to stop embarrassing its dedicated doctors and scientists with utterly unscientific announcements such as the recent bulletin that smoked marijuana has no medicinal value.

Since no FDA expert panel or newly published research provided the basis for the pronouncement, it's safe to assume the sloppy one-page statement was the handiwork of Bush administration political appointees. The statement is devoid of any data to support its dishonest conclusion, but it does have one thing going for it: It's a masterpiece of circular logic.

Marijuana is a dangerous drug, according to the FDA, because it is listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, where only the most dangerous drugs are listed. (Wait, there's more.) The FDA has been disinclined since the "reefer madness" days of federal pot policy to authorize any studies of marijuana's potential as medicine. That gives the FDA continuing cover to maintain that "no sound scientific studies support medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States."

Here the FDA is fibbing, because it knows full well that in 1999, the Institute of Medicine, the medical arm of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the question of medical marijuana use in considerable depth and published a 288-page report of its findings.
Among other conclusions, the report said, "For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy, and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication." Furthermore, the active ingredient in marijuana has long been known to reduce the intraocular pressure associated with glaucoma.

Medical marijuana has earned the endorsement of The New England Journal of Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians and numerous oncologists. The anecdotal evidence of 10,000 Oregonians who've been prescribed medical marijuana by more than 2,000 licensed Oregon physicians adds to the mountain of data supporting the medicinal value of pot.

The IOM report urged further research, but very little has been done in the seven years since its findings were published. The federal government controls the only legal supply of marijuana available for research, and the administration isn't much interested in providing scientists with the means to debunk its absolutist position on pot.

The FDA is partly right about one thing: Lighting marijuana on fire and inhaling its smoke into the lungs is a crude and toxic delivery system. Smoking is a nonstarter as a way to wider acceptance of marijuana as medicine.

More research is needed into development of safe alternatives to smoking, such as Sativex, a cannabis extract that is administered by means of a spray into the mouth. It has won preliminary approval in Canada for relief of symptoms of multiple sclerosis and for treatment of severe neuropathic pain.

It's tragic to witness the FDA's credibility implosion at the hands of an administration that places politics ahead of impartial science. Combined with its disgraceful refusal to allow women nonprescription access to emergency contraception, the FDA's latest stumble into the politics of pot as medicine would be laughable, if it weren't so sad.