Game changers? 

Challenging the feds on marijuana's medicinal benefits

Efforts to get the federal government to downgrade its classification of marijuana from a dangerous narcotic with no medical value and to acknowledge that it has medical uses may be reaching a critical mass.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act in Congress. Frank's legislation would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug on the federal registry. Schedule I drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are considered the most dangerous and highly addictive. Schedule III drugs have recognized medical value, and research on them is allowed.

No matter what you think about marijuana use, that marijuana is in the same class as heroin and cocaine flies against all logic. For one thing, there is not one documented case of someone dying from a marijuana overdose.

Frank has introduced similar legislation before, so it's not like he suddenly saw the light and changed sides. However, it came just a couple of days after the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC) filed suit in District of Columbia Circuit Court to compel the Obama administration to answer a nine-year-old petition to reclassify medical marijuana as a Schedule III drug — or downgrade it even further to Schedule IV or V.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians have also called for rescheduling, and pharmaceutical companies are lobbying for the same thing to research medical applications. A synthetic form of THC, one of the most active components of marijuana, is marketed under the name Marinol. It goes off patent this year, and companies seeking to develop generics want to use natural THC derived from the plant because it's cheaper than synthetic production.

Pressure for rescheduling seems at its highest since President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. In the CRC suit, any government response moves the issue forward for activists. If the administration reschedules marijuana they get what they want. If the administration denies the petition, it opens the door to challenge the assertion that marijuana has no medical value.

"We need a petition answered before we can go into court and challenge the substance of their argument, which is what we intend to do," says Kris Hermes, media liaison for Americans for Safer Access, a member of the CRC. "The reason we're doing this is the government strategy, as far as we can tell, is simply to delay so they don't have to address the issue. It's a political football. ... However a confluence of events that have occurred over last couple of years leads one to believe we have a renewed opportunity to fix this issue."

It seems that given their day in court medical marijuana supporters would have very powerful arguments. A growing body of international scientific evidence shows that marijuana does have medical value. A 2009 report from the AMA concluded:

Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. However, the patchwork of state-based systems that have been established for medical marijuana is woefully inadequate in establishing even rudimentary safeguards. ... The future of cannabinoid-based medicine lies in the rapidly evolving field of botanical drug substance development, as well as the design of molecules that target various aspects of the endocannabinoid system. To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort, such a move can be supported.

Cannabinoids are substances in marijuana — THC is the best-known — and other plants that affect the body's self-regulatory endocannabinoid system. Studies have shown cannabinoids other than THC to have therapeutic value either on their own or in combination with THC. For instance, cannabidial (CBD) has been shown to relieve convulsions, inflammation, anxiety and nausea, as well as inhibit cancer cell growth.

And although reefer madness hysteria remains a potent force, polling shows about 80 percent of Americans support making marijuana available for medical purposes.

In addition to Frank's bill, two others to normalize the business of medical marijuana were introduced in Congress the same day. One is the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011 introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Polis' bill would allow banks to provide services for medical marijuana businesses without being subject to requirements for reporting suspicious activity. The other is the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011 introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). It would change the federal tax code "to allow a deduction for expenses in connection with the trade or business of selling marijuana intended for patients for medical purposes pursuant to state law."

"Frank's bill ... would have more sweeping effect," says Hermes. "It would have the same effect as our lawsuit. ... We support the Polis and Stark bills as improvements to federal medical marijuana policy in general."

Rescheduling marijuana would render a plethora of legal opposition to medical marijuana in the states moot. For instance, a number of Michigan municipalities have banned medical marijuana facilities on the grounds that they violate federal law ("no medical value"). Some of our representatives in Lansing don't seem very friendly to medical marijuana either. Two bills have been recently introduced in the Michigan Legislature that nibble at the edges of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.

Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart) introduced SB377 to require that names of medical marijuana cardholders be sent to the state police, and to void some privacy protections for cardholders. Critics say it would needlessly expose patients to police suspicion when the MMMA already allows police to verify patients' ID cards.

"We understand that law enforcement has to do their jobs, but there is no need to give every medical marijuana patient and caregiver's name to law enforcement," says Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "This treats medical marijuana patients almost like sex offenders."

Rep. George Darany (D-Dearborn) introduced HB 4661 to make it illegal to grow marijuana within 500 feet of a school, daycare center, or church. In introducing the bill, he compared his proposed rule to those for bars. Activists say the bill's wording would preclude patients or caregivers from growing marijuana inside their homes.

"This legislation is intended to be a starting point to help find the best way to unify location standards for facilities that dispense medical marihuana," Darany said in an e-mail. "It is not meant to increase regulations on caregivers or patients in their homes. The Medical Marihuana Act is relatively new, and there is a lot of inconsistency throughout the state. This legislation is intended to foster discussions that create standards and guidance for responsible distribution, as with any medicinal treatment. I am committed to protecting the rights of caregivers and patients and look forward to continued discussions and an open dialogue."

Booher did not respond to a message left at his office. It takes a supermajority 75 percent of both houses in Lansing to amend the MMMA, but these cases might test the waters for futher legislation curtailing the MMMA.

None of this stuff is going to be resolved soon. One thing for certain: We couldn't have even had this discussion 20 years ago.

More by Larry Gabriel

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