Reefer Madness At The FDA

marijuana-leaf.jpgOne 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.

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6 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the largest ideological divide in this country is one of epistemology — between the experimentalists and the gnostics. The experimentalists believe that observed events reflect reality and construct their realities from observations, while the gnostics construct their realities from fundamental points of faith and disregard or discredit observations which disagree with those points.

    As an example, the 2004 poll showing that Kerry supporters were generally accurate about Kerry’s positions while Bush supporters were generally inaccurate about his. Some try to spin this as an indictment of Bush voters’ attention, but what I think it clearly shows is that they have started with the point “Bush (or Republican) is good”, added their intuition that “labor and environmental standards in trade agreements are good” (or the US being part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the treaty banning land mines, or the Kyoto Treaty on global warming; or…) and concluded that Bush was also in favor of those points, despite what observations and explicit statements show.

    In this case, the gnostics in the FDA have already taken as given that marijuana is categorically bad, and so that is the Truth to them, despite what experimental observations may or may not show. You’re trying to argue as an experimentalist that these studies have any weight at all to compare with the fundamental point of faith. You’re not going to convince anyone to change their ways, because the whole notion of epistemology underlying your well-reasoned post is flawed in their estimation.

  2. Liz L says:

    Professor Filler- I am glad you are addressing this issue; I wanted to discuss marijuana in the context of Profsesor Anderson’s “Drunk at Duke” posting. I would argue that marijuana is the most benign of any illegal drug, safer even (both health wise and external risk wise) than alcohol. As you point out, this Administration continuously twists data unfavorable to its Mission, thus clouding the debate on issues such as the legalization of pot. Aside from the theraputic benefits to marijuana, there are economic reasons for legalization. First, tax revenue from its legalized sale would be staggering. Second, the costs of prosecution and incarceration of pot smokers would drop. Check out “Reefer Madness” by Eric Scholosser. It’s all in there.

  3. Liz L says:

    That’s Eric Schlosser. I apologize.

  4. Alex Geisinger says:


    Thanks for posting on this issue. I take the earlier point on experimentalism versus gnosticism but wonder whether the timing suggests something else.

    As we gear up for another election cycle, faith-based groups are starting again to bang the drum on homosexual unions (see the April 24th edition of the New York Times reporting on 50 religious leaders signing a petition for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages) and I expect legalization of marijuana may be the latest entry in the “culture” wars. Currently about 11 states allow medical use of marijuana, including California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Some midwestern states (Illinois and Wisconsin) are reported to be considering laws allowing the medical use of marijuana as well. While this type of issue doesn’t necessarily resonate with social conservatives in the way that Christian issues may, it nevertheless may impact the views of many conservatives and, perhaps, even some soccer moms. In a year of potentially-close elections, mary jane may be just what the doctor ordered (for republicans, at least)!!!

  5. “Why can’t the administration concede the existence of this data review by another federal agency?’

    well, actually that wasn’t another federal agency that did the review – yes, the study was done at the behest of the ONDCP but it was the Institute of Medicine which did the study. IOM is part of the National Academy of Sciences which isn’t a federal agency.

    That said, I agree that the federal government should allow the states to set their own policy on this issue…as well as on most matters. That’s the problem with an overarching federal government – social conservatives can co-opt it to put forth their own agenda….insert ‘petard’ comment here…

  6. gloster says:

    It is well known in the drug policy field that eleven states reduced the criminal sanctions associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana.


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