Reefer Madness At The FDA
One of the most troubling behaviors of the current administration is its repeated willingness to manipulate the distribution of empirical data with which it disagrees. From global warming to crime, the government seems more interested in promoting its policy preferences than transparently reporting the results of the research it performs or supports. The administration has a legitimate right to advocate for its positions. But if it wants to argue that marijuana ought to be illegal, as the FDA did last week in its Inter-Agency Advisory Regarding Claims That Smoked Marijuana Is A Medicine, it seems to me the better policy – both from an honesty and a credibility point of view – is to concede the facts that cut against you, and make your case anyway. In its press release last week, the FDA asserted that:
A past evaluation by several Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), concluded that no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States.
True as this may be, a 1999 review of studies by the National Institute of Medicine suggests that marijuana offers potential therapeutic value for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation. Also, it notes that “until a non-smoked, rapid-onset cannabanoid drug delivery system becomes available…there is no clear alternative” to smoking. Why can’t the administration concede the existence of this data review by another federal agency?
It seems to me that the administration is driven by a decision, ex ante, that marijuana ought to be illegal. If it were truly interested in investigating the utility of the drug, it wouldn’t make serious research into its value exceedingly difficult. So the federal government ignores data suggesting the value of marijuana. It makes it hard to generate more research on marijuana. And it is therefore able to rail against the many states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. There are reasons to believe that, if the government allowed the debate to flourish – by sharing data that does exist and promoting the production of new data – its position might become weaker. But if marijuana is in fact effective as a medicine, perhaps the FDA should legalize it. And if the government’s real argument is something other than efficacy – that it is very likely to be misued, for example, or that its increased availability will lead to a rise in DUI cases – then it should make that case instead.
In some respects, this approach to policy debate reminds me of an argument made by death penalty opponents who argue that the death penalty is bad policy because it is expensive. But why is it expensive? Because opponents litigate these cases very aggressively. There are many good reasons why some people may oppose the death penalty. But it seems to me that when the people complaining about the cost of capital punishment are the people generating this expense, one should at least be skeptical. I’m not denying that the expense argument might mask a a deeper claim: perhaps these cases are so expensive, and require so many appeals, because the state fails to provide excellent counsel in the first instance. But if this is true, wouldn’t a more logical solution to the cost problem be a requirement that states spend money on quality counsel up front, to save in the long haul? In the end, the real claim underneath cost is fairness: the quality of a person’s lawyer should not determine whether he receives a death sentence. That may not “sell” as well to certain voters, but it is the more honest argument.
As for reefer, when government is making the arguments, I think we have a right to expect honesty. The FDA’s dubious pronouncement appears driven primarily by the administration’s emotional hatred of marijuana. Personally, I’d prefer FDA decisions to be grounded in evidence-based research rather than simply madness.