Clinton aides to review Bush decision banning medicinal uses for marijuana

January 06, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Federal health officials said yesterday they were reviewing a Bush administration decision to prohibit the medical use of marijuana, but they stressed that their action did not necessarily mean the ban would be lifted.

Dr. Philip Lee, assistant secretary for health, said the administration agreed to take another look at the ban after being asked to do so by several members of Congress, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on health.

"The review is in keeping with the practices of regularly reviewing policies and procedures but does not signal a change in the current policy, nor implies that current policy will be reversed," Dr. Lee said in a statement. One health official called the process "fairly routine."

Nevertheless, the issue could further fuel the uproar created by Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general, when she suggested in recent remarks that the question of legalizing drugs deserved more study.

From 1976 until 1992, the federal government allowed a small number of individuals on a case-by-case basis to take the illegal drug for medicinal purposes. Those included relieving the nausea and appetite loss that is often a side effect of cancer and AIDS therapy, easing muscle spasms associated with spinal cord injuries or multiple sclerosis, and lessening eye pressure in those suffering from glaucoma.

But in a March 1992 ruling, the Bush administration discontinued the program, saying the drug's therapeutic value was unproven and that it could cause harm. Its use has been associated with lung ailments and other problems.

At the time, about 15 patients were taking the drug under the program and were allowed to continue. But hundreds of others were denied permission.

William Ruzzamenti, director of congressional and public affairs for the Drug Enforcement Administration, insisted yesterday that reversal of the 1992 decision was not likely at this time.

"There's no move afoot here to reconsider that decision" banning the medical use of marijuana, he said, adding: "Historically, we have viewed it as a bad idea. We still view it as a bad idea."

But Kevin Zeese, vice president and counsel for the Drug Policy Foundation, a private nonprofit education organization, urged the Clinton administration to move quickly to end the ban.

"It's time we stopped making criminals out of seriously ill Americans by denying them a medicine that obviously helps," Mr. Zeese said. "The ban on medical marijuana is inconsistent with the research of marijuana's effectiveness and inconsistent with the feelings of patients and doctors throughout the country."

Marijuana is classified under federal law as a "Schedule 1" drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and has no acceptable medical uses in the United States. Nor is it considered safe for medical purposes.

Some studies have found a certain measure of support within the medical community for its medicinal use.

A 1991 Harvard University-sponsored study, for example, found that 40 percent of U.S. cancer specialists surveyed recommended that their patients smoke marijuana to relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea, and 48 percent said they would prescribe it in certain cases if the drug were legal.

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