Marijuana is medicine. It has been used for thousands of years to treat a
wide variety of ailments. Marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) was legal in the
United States for all purposes – industrial and recreational, as well as
medicinal until 1937.
Today, only eight Americans are legally allowed to use marijuana as medicine.
NORML is working to restore marijuana’s availability as medicine. Medicinal
Value Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically
active substances known. No one has ever died from an overdose. It is also
Four of its general therapeutic applications include: relief from nausea and
increase of appetite; reduction of intraocular (“within the eye”) pressure;
reduction of muscle spasms; relief from mild to moderate chronic pain.
Marijuana is often useful in the treatment of the following conditions:
Cancer: Marijuana alleviates the nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite caused
by chemotherapy treatment. AIDS: Marijuana alleviates the nausea, vomiting,
and loss of appetite caused by the disease itself and by treatment with AZT and
Glaucoma: Marijuana, by reducing intraocular pressure, alleviates the pain and
slows or halts the progress of the disease. Glaucoma, which damages vision by
gradually increasing eye pressure over time, is the leading cause of blindness
in the United States.
Multiple Sclerosis: Marijuana reduces the muscle pain and spasticity caused by
the disease. It may also relieve tremor and unsteadiness of gait, and it helps
some patients with bladder control. Multiple sclerosis is the leading cause of
neurological disability among young and middle-aged adults in the United States.
Epilepsy: Marijuana prevents epileptic seizures in some patients.
Chronic Pain: Marijuana reduces the chronic, often debilitating pain caused by
a variety of injuries and disorders.
Each of these uses has been recognized as legitimate at least once by various
courts, legislatures, government, or scientific agencies throughout the United
States. Currently, such well respected organizations as the National Academy of
Sciences (1982), the California Medical Association (1993), the Federation of
American Scientists (1994), the Australian Commonwealth Department of Human
Services and Health (1994), the American Public Health Association (1995), the
San Francisco Medical Society (1996), the California Academy of Family
Physicians (1996), as well as several state nursing associations have supported
the use of marijuana as a medicine.
In addition, anecdotal evidence exists that marijuana is effective in the
treatment of arthritis, migraine headaches, pruritis, menstrual cramps, alcohol
and opiate addiction, and depression and other mood disorders. Marijuana could
benefit as many as five million patients in the United States.
However, except for the eight individuals given special permission by the
federal government, marijuana remains illegal-even as medicine! Individuals
currently suffering from any of the aforementioned ailments, for whom the
standard legal medical alternatives have not been safe or effective, are left
with two choices: Continue to suffer from the effects of the disease; or Obtain
marijuana illegally and risk the potential consequences, which may include: an
insufficient supply because of the prohibition-inflated price or unavailability;
impure, contaminated, or chemically adulterated marijuana; arrests, fines, court
costs, property forfeiture, incarceration, probation, and criminal records.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 established the federal prohibition of marijuana.
Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association testified against
the Act, arguing that it would ultimately prevent any medicinal use of marijuana.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 established five categories, or
“schedules,” into which all illicit and prescription drugs were placed.
Marijuana was placed in Schedule I, which defines the substance as having a high
potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the
United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
This definition is simply not accurate. However, at the time of the Controlled
Substances Act, marijuana had been illegal for more than 30 years. Its
medicinal uses had been forgotten and its “reefer madness” stigma was still
Marijuana’s medicinal uses were rediscovered as a result of the tremendous
increase in the number of recreational users in the 1970s: Marijuana’s
popularity compelled many scientists to study its health effects. They
subsequently discovered marijuana’s remarkable history as a medicine, inspiring
many studies of its therapeutic potential; Many recreational users who also
happened to be afflicted with conditions for which marijuana has therapeutic
potential inadvertently discovered its medicinal benefits.
As the news spread, the number of patients illegally using marijuana
medicinally began to increase. Because marijuana is a Schedule I substance,
however, doctors were not allowed to prescribe it, and research approval and
funding were severely restricted.
The Struggle In Court:
In 1972, NORML initiated efforts to reschedule marijuana by submitting a
petition to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs-now the Drug Enforcement
After 14 years of legal maneuvering, the DEA finally acceded to NORML’s demand
for the public hearings required by law.
Following the hearings, which lasted two years and included thousands of pages
of documentation as well as the testimony of numerous physicians and patients, a
decision was reached.
On September 6, 1988, the DEA’s Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis L.
Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active
substances known. The provisions of the Controlled Substances Act permit and
require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. It would be
unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between
those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.
Docket No. 86-22>
Marijuana’s placement in Schedule II would allow doctors to prescribe it to
their patients. Bureaucrats in charge of the DEA rejected Judge Young’s ruling
and refused to reschedule!
Two appeals later, NORML experienced its first defeat in the 22-year-old
lawsuit. On February 18, 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) upheld
the DEA’s decision to keep marijuana in Schedule I.
It seems that as long as the DEA-a law enforcement agency-is allowed to set
its own criteria used to determine what “medicine” is, the courts will be unable
to require the DEA to reschedule marijuana.
In 1975, Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient, was arrested for cultivating his
own medicinal marijuana. He won his case by using the “defense of medical
necessity,” forcing the government to find a way to provide him with his
The Compassionate Investigative New Drug (IND) program was thus created,
through which patients could obtain marijuana from the government. The program,
while helpful to some, was thoroughly inadequate at granting legal access to the
millions of patients who are in need of medicinal marijuana:
Most patients didn’t even consider the possibility that an illegal drug might
be their best medicine; Most patients lucky enough to discover marijuana’s
medicinal value didn’t find out about the IND program; Most of those who did
find out about the program couldn’t find doctors willing to take on the grueling,
time-consuming task of filing an IND application.
In June 1991, the Public Health Service announced that the program would be
suspended because it undercut the Bush administration’s opposition to the use of
illegal drugs. After that, no new Compassionate INDs were granted, and the
program was discontinued in March 1992.
On January 4, 1994, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) announced that it
would reconsider the ban. On July 18, 1994, the PHS decided that it would
adhere to Bush’s heartless policy and announced that the IND program would
Presently, eight patients continue to receive marijuana under the original
program; for everyone else it is officially a forbidden medicine.
Hope for reform:
There is an enormous amount of public support for ending the prohibition of
medicinal marijuana: Between 1978 and 1996, 36 states pass legislation
recognizing marijuana’s medicinal value. (They remain stymied by the federal
government’s blanket prohibition of marijuana, however.) A 1990 scientific
survey of oncologists (cancer specialists) found that 54 percent of those with
an opinion favor the controlled medical availability of marijuana and 44 percent
had already broken the law by suggesting at least once that a patient obtain
marijuana illegally. These findings are later published in the Journal of
At NORML’s urging, U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduces
legislation in Congress in 1995 (H.R. 2618) to amend the federal law to allow
physician’s to legally prescribe marijuana as a medicine to patients. NORML
testifies before Congress in 1996 on behalf of medical marijuana. The
legislature of Washington state appropriates over $100,000 in 1996 to conduct
clinical studies on patients to determine the effectiveness of medical marijuana
in the treatment of serious illnesses. The appropriation also fund research on
cultivating medical marijuana in a tamper-free environment and explores
potential ways in which the state can legally distribute the drug for medical
use. Due in part to the activism of NORML members, a California initiative to
legalize marijuana for medical purposes (Proposition 215) gathers enough
signatures to be placed on the November 1996 election ballot. In August, both
the San Francisco Medical Society and the California Academy of Family
Physicians — representing a combined total of almost 10,000 physicians
statewide — endorse the proposition.
The challenge for compassionate Americans is to translate this public support
into effective reform. It may not be easy to break the DEA’s stranglehold on
medicinal marijuana, but it can be done!
Category: Social Issues