A GREAT MANY people believe that Laetrile, a substance made from apricot pits, relieves the symtoms and slows the pace of cancer, though it does not cure it. But decades of tests (on animals) have led a virtually unanimous medical and scientific community to conclude that laetrile has no such effects. This is the basis of the national argument raging over whether laetrile, long available in Mexico, should be licensed here. Three states have done so; others are considering it. The Food and Drug Aministration is waging an uphill battle to block legalization of laetirle by the courts, and a "Medical Freedom of Choice" bill has been introduced that, while not described as a laetrile bill, would remove the major obstacle - a requirement for proof of efficacy - to its general marketing.

The professionals' and bureaucrats' reluctance to approve a "drug" (friends of Laetrile insist it is not a drug but a natural food substance not requiring license) that has not been proven effective and that might distract terminal patients from other treatment is understandable. But as the suits and bills show, the matter is already out of their control. The cancer dread, anti-establishment sentiment and perhaps the "forbidden fruit" aura have kindled a popular fire. It has heated up the claim - a reasonable one, in our view - that since what is involved is personal relief from a killing disease far from fully understood by medical men, the state has scant right or interest in denying a terminal cancer patient his choice of what in fact may be nothing more than a placebo - as long as the patient has been offered no false hopes to the contrary. The popular force behind Laetrile is a political fact.

This dictates a political solution. It means, first of all, that Laetrile should not be left to the courts. Nor should the issue be dealt with, variously, by state legislatures. It is, necessarily, a national political concern. The "Medical Freedom of Choice" bill recognizes this but, frankly, it scares us. It is being advanced in the emotional atmosphere generated by Laetrile, and it would strike down the effectiveness standard, leaving just the question of safety for all new drugs. Would it not be better to legislate strictly on Laetrile? As long as the door is opening anyway, the federal government had best be the doorkeeper. Legislation could contain requirements 1) for disclosure, to warn buyers they were getting a drug not proven effective, 2) for clinical trial, and 3) for close and continuing review. This would satisfy the craving of terminal cancer patients for the treatment of their choice, and it would protect the government's long-term interest in caring for the public health.