Vice President Gore said tonight that the government should give doctors greater flexibility to prescribe marijuana to relieve medical suffering as he broke once again with Clinton administration policy on a contentious social issue.
Campaigning in advance of the New Hampshire primary in February, Gore told a town hall audience here of his late sister's struggle with cancer in the mid-1980s and said suffering patients and their doctors "ought to have the option" of using marijuana to alleviate the pain.
"Where the alleviation of pain in medical situations is concerned, we have not given doctors enough flexibility to help patients who are going through acute pain," Gore said. "Many of us have seen that ourselves."
The comments marked the second time in two days that Gore, engulfed in a bitter battle with Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination, has taken issue with administration positions that he has publicly supported in the past. On Monday, the vice president criticized President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.
Meeting with reporters after tonight's televised forum, Gore sought to backtrack from his comments and appeared to come closer to the official administration position, which supports medicinal marijuana only in tightly controlled research settings. The vice president emphasized that he opposes legalizing marijuana and believes more research is needed to determine whether medicinal marijuana works.
"If the research shows that there are circumstances in which there is no alternative for alleviating the pain that doctors believe can be alleviated through the use of medical marijuana, then under certain limited medical circumstances--if the research validates that choice--then it should be allowed," Gore said. "We are not at the point."
Gore made no such qualification when talking before the audience earlier in the evening, and in fact he acknowledged that White House drug policy chief Barry R. McCaffrey held a different opinion from the one he was expressing.
As with gays in the military, the marijuana issue has become increasingly politicized nationwide, as a half-dozen states--as well as the District of Columbia--have approved referendums allowing the medical use of the drug. The Clinton administration has opposed such laws on the grounds that the medical use of marijuana should be dictated by science, not politics, and it has warned doctors of possible sanctions if they invoke such state referendums. The District law has been overturned by Congress.
Earlier this year, a panel of prominent scientists convened by the federal government concluded that some of the substances in marijuana may be useful in treating such conditions as pain or nausea, but that smoked marijuana has little future as a medicine. Administration officials have cited that conclusion in urging a go-slow approach on medical marijuana.
"The administration is adamantly opposed to the use of marijuana outside of authorized research," Donald R. Vereen Jr., deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said before Congress in September.
The issue has cropped up at other points in the campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, has said states should have the right to allow medical use of marijuana, although he personally does not support the practice.
At a New Hampshire forum two weeks ago, Bradley said, "I don't support medical marijuana now. I think it's something we have to study more before we decide to do it," the Associated Press reported.
In the past, Gore has been sharply critical of the legalization of marijuana for any purpose, including medical. In a letter dated Aug. 13, 1997, that the pro-legalization group NORML posted on its Web site, Gore wrote: "This administration is absolutely opposed to the legalization of any illicit drugs, including marijuana. . . . Marijuana is not harmless or beneficial, in fact, it is more carcinogenic than tobacco; it impairs short-term memory, concentration, and coordination; and it damages brain functions, the immune system, and the lungs."
Gore took a different tack at the town hall meeting tonight, noting that his sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, tried marijuana when she was suffering from cancer. "[She] decided against it because she didn't like it; it didn't produce the desired result," Gore said. "If it had worked for her, I think she should have had the ability to get her pain relieved that way."
Gore, who has acknowledged smoking marijuana as a soldier in Vietnam and later when he returned to Tennessee, said today he believes "it is not good to open up more access to marijuana."
"It would be a terrible mistake to legalize marijuana," Gore said. "The marijuana commonly available today, I'm told, is many times stronger typically than the kind of marijuana commonly available several decades ago, which my generation thinks about when debating this issue."
At the news conference, Gore said he did not know how his sister's doctor procured marijuana for her. "It came in a prescription container with a label on it," he recalled.
"I don't know what the status of the law was in 1984 in Tennessee," he said. "She was treated at Vanderbilt Hospital and it's my understanding it has not been unknown for some patients undergoing chemotherapy to be prescribed, in the past, marijuana as a means of dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy. Have none of you ever heard of that?"
Spokesman Chris Lehane said former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, a Republican who endorsed Bush, signed a law making medical marijuana legal in Tennessee.
Despite expressing reservations about current scientific research, Gore seemed to indicate great faith in his sister's physician at the time of her treatment, noting that he was the former head of the American Lung Association. "Her doctor was one of the very best in the entire world and his view of the prevailing science then was that it might be efficacious," the vice president said at the news conference. "The prevailing opinion of the majority of physicians today, as I understand it and I'm no expert, is that it is not ever preferable to have a smoke-carried agent for relief of nausea or pain."
Dan Viets, chair of the NORML board, said he was delighted to hear news of Gore's comments. "Gore is staking out some independent ground here, but I hope it motivates Bill Bradley to do likewise, and I hope the Republicans consider it."
Viets said public opinion polls and recent state referendums have show strong support for the medical use of marijuana.
Edsall reported from Washington. Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.