For the 5th time since 1972, DEA decides that marijuana is not medicine Ruling means drug can't be prescribed

March 20, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration has made a new try -- the fifth in the past 20 years -- to bar doctors from using marijuana as a medicine.

This week's ruling by the agency's administrator, Robert C. Bonner, may face a revived challenge in federal court. Four times before, the U.S. Court of Appeals here has rebuffed the DEA's refusals to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as a treatment for disease or illness.

Mr. Bonner, in a sharply worded 46-page ruling, turned down a plea first made in 1972 to reclassify marijuana so that it could be prescribed by doctors. "By any modern scientific standard, marijuana is no medicine," he declared.

"Beyond doubt," he added, "the claims that marijuana is medicine are false, dangerous and cruel. Sick men, women and children can be fooled by these claims and experiment with the drug. Instead of being helped, they risk serious side effects."

Marijuana is now on the government's list of the most dangerous drugs, indicating that it has no "accepted medical use." Mr. Bonner's decision reaffirmed that listing. As long as marijuana is on that list, it cannot be prescribed by doctors in ordinary medical practice and can be used only in experiments. Currently, 13 individuals nationwide are using marijuana in such experiments.

Those advocating marijuana as a medicine contend that it can have some effect in treating glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, and vomiting. The advocates argue that millions of patients could benefit from it as a medicine.

Kennington Wall, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Foundation, said those involved in the dispute "are looking for ways to show the Court of Appeals that DEA is so close-minded that we can't rely on them to make the decision."

However, Allen St. Pierre, a spokesman for the leading group in the 20-year fight to clear marijuana for use as a medicine, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said his group probably would not go back to court again. "We must now put this right on the doorsteps of the legislators," he said. Only Congress, he noted, could force the DEA to allow the illegal drug to be used as a medicine.

Mr. Bonner's decision, following by almost three years the agency's last refusal, relied heavily upon conclusions that there is simply no reliable scientific evidence to show that marijuana is either safe or effective as a medicine.

The ruling quoted Dr. Kenneth P. Johnson, chairman of the neurology department at the University of Maryland, as saying that "to conclude that marijuana is therapeutically effective without conducting rigorous testing would be professionally irresponsible."

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