Convinced they have sound science on their side, advocates for the medical use of marijuana plan to launch a novel effort today to get the federal government to ease restrictions on the illicit drug.
Americans for Safe Access, a Berkeley, Calif., coalition of patients and doctors wanting easier access to pot for research and patient use, plans to file a petition with the Department of Health and Human Services charging the agency with spreading inaccurate information about the drug's medical value.
Unlike previous efforts to ease marijuana access, which relied on the courts and have dragged on for years, the petition invokes the Data Quality Act, a little-known but powerful law that gives people the right to challenge scientific information disseminated by federal agencies. The law demands that agencies respond to petitions within two months.
The act's use by marijuana advocates represents a peculiar political twist. The act was written by a tobacco industry lobbyist and slipped into a huge piece of legislation after the 2000 election without any congressional discussion or debate. It has been used almost exclusively by corporations challenging the validity of scientific information that they fear might lead to costly regulations.
Many consumer groups want the act repealed, saying its wording -- and the fact that it is, by law, coordinated by the White House -- makes it easy for companies to dismiss as "junk science" damning evidence that their products are harmful.
But in one of the first uses of the act on behalf of a liberal, consumer-based cause, the new petition seeks to dismiss government assertions that marijuana is dangerous and medically useless, saying they contradict findings of the Institute of Medicine and other authoritative sources.
"The government's position on medical marijuana is out of touch with public opinion, but most important it's out of touch with the science," said William Dolphin, a spokesman for the Berkeley group, which plans to announce its action today. "It's time the federal government gets out of the way and lets doctors make decisions for their patients."
The petition calls for the government to correct "scientifically flawed statements" about marijuana published in the Federal Register, a move that would allow -- though not compel -- the Drug Enforcement Administration to declare it a "Schedule II" drug. That would allow it to be prescribed for specified conditions and more easily obtained for research.
Schedule II drugs, including cocaine and morphine, are tightly controlled because of their high potential for abuse, but less stringently than Schedule I drugs (LSD, peyote and marijuana among them), which by definition have no accepted medical use.
The petition challenges the government contention that "there have been no studies that have scientifically assessed the efficacy of marijuana for any medical condition." In fact, the group notes, a 1999 Institute of Medicine report concluded that studies have found marijuana helpful "for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation."
The institute called for clinical studies to identify pot's beneficial ingredients and to create drug delivery systems safer than smoking.
David Murray, a policy analyst with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, agreed it is "beyond dispute" that marijuana's efficacy has been assessed and potential benefits identified. But he dismissed as "lame" another of the Berkeley group's assertions: that pot has "currently accepted" medical uses in the United States -- a key requirement for reassignment to Schedule II.
The Safe Access group cited a survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine finding that more than 40 percent of cancer doctors had recommended the drug to patients to relieve nausea from chemotherapy. The group also noted pot's emerging popularity among people with multiple sclerosis after studies suggesting the drug can reduce muscle spasticity.
But Murray said it is up to the Food and Drug Administration to decide when a drug has "accepted" medical use. To leave that up to doctors and patients, he said, is like "leaving it to fans in the Redskins' end zone to call a touchdown, instead of the referees."
Murray emphasized the negative health effects of marijuana smoke (studies show a possible increase in oral cancers) and concerns about effects on the brain.
But Safe Access's executive director, Steph Sherer, and the group's San Francisco attorney, Joe Elford, pointed to a DEA administrative law judge's conclusion that pot was far safer than aspirin.
"A smoker would have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response," Judge Francis L. Young determined in 1988. Marijuana, he concluded, "has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States . . . and it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II."
The ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court but was overturned on procedural grounds.
Schedule I drugs are eligible for study under grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and pot from a government farm in Mississippi is occasionally provided for experiments. But advocates say the hurdles to winning a grant are extreme.
"I can't understand why it isn't rescheduled," said John A. Benson Jr., the University of Nebraska Medical Center professor who led the institute study. Research on marijuana could probably lead to an array of useful new medicines, he said in a telephone interview. "But politically, socially, and in general, there's just a reluctance to take this on."