A scientific study just received permission from the federal government to go forward. This really shouldn't even be news, but it is indeed newsworthy because it is a milestone achievement. It is the first time anyone can remember that the beneficial medical effects of marijuana have been allowed to be legally studied. The group trying to do the study has been requesting permission to do so for over two decades, just as one measure of how monumental a breakthrough this may be.
I have to say "may be" at the end of that last sentence, because getting approval to study marijuana is a three-step process. The Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Drug Enforcement Agency all have to sign off on such studies. The F.D.A. had already approved the study, and the recent news is that H.H.S. has now given it the green light as well. But the D.E.A. still has final say (because, to legally study marijuana you must get legal marijuana from the one farm that the federal government grows it on), so there's always a chance that the study could still be blocked. Or delayed another decade or two, for that matter.
Allowing such a study -- in specific, studying how marijuana could help returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder -- is a crucial step in reversing course on the entire federal War On Weed. It appears to be part of a policy reversal by the Obama administration, one that has begun gradually over the course of the past year. Most of these policy shifts have come from Attorney General Eric Holder, but this one is more important than lightening up a few of the Draconian federal marijuana laws -- because it is about science. Science that has not been allowed to be performed, for nothing short of political reasons.
There are many people who are quite adamant about their refusal to see marijuana as medicine. Some of these people have federal jobs which require them not to ever see anything beneficial about marijuana, in fact. To bolster their position, they always fall back on the same argument: "marijuana has never been properly studied as medicine, therefore it cannot be valid because there is no scientific basis to back up anecdotal evidence."
But this argument is nothing more than a Catch-22 situation. Marijuana is listed as the most dangerous of drugs (more dangerous than crystal methamphetamine), because there are no accepted medical uses. There are no accepted medical uses because there are no scientific studies on how marijuana can be used medicinally. Such studies are never approved because marijuana has no accepted (or "politically-acceptable," perhaps) medical uses. It is such a dangerous drug that it can't even be scientifically studied, and we know this because there are no scientific studies which contradict this position.
You can see the circular nature of this logic. What proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is a purely political stance is the fact that scientific studies on marijuana have been allowed to take place -- as long as your study is designed to prove what a dangerous drug marijuana is. A study on helping soldiers with P.T.S.D. was not politically acceptable before now, because the study wasn't designed to measure how bad marijuana is. That is politics trumping science, in an almost totalitarian way. It smacks of the "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards!" reasoning of Alice's Red Queen, in fact.
The drug warriors have gotten away with the "you have no scientific proof" dismissal of marijuana's medicinal uses for decades, now. But when the same drug warriors have veto power over approving any such studies, the argument is downright laughable. Now, for the first time in decades, smoked or ingested marijuana's benefits are about to be studied, in a rigorous scientific environment. Hopefully more studies will be likewise approved, for all the other anecdotal evidence out there that marijuana helps with all kinds of illnesses. Hopefully these studies will produce a mountain of data. Perhaps some will show disappointing results -- which will be made public and perhaps prove that marijuana doesn't really help for illnesses X, Y, or Z. But other studies will perhaps show that marijuana is beneficial to the treatment of A, B, or C. That is the nature of science -- forming hypotheses and then rigorously testing to produce verifiable results.
The federal government has held the power to approve such studies since the Drug War began. It has approved all the studies designed to show negative effects of marijuana. It has stopped cold any studies designed to show any positive effects. For nothing more than politics.
Which is why this is such a big deal. A scientific study just received permission from the federal government to go forward -- something which shouldn't even be considered newsworthy. And, hopefully in the future, it won't. The first such study approved is indeed news. The second or third might be. But the fifteenth? Or the forty-second? That's not news at all.
When Barack Obama took office, he made a promise that policy decisions would be made on the basis of science, and not politics. In his first term, Obama did not exactly do a great job of keeping this promise. There was the whole "Plan B" court fight, where the White House took the side of overruling scientists for nothing more than sheer politics, and there was the crackdown on medical marijuana in several states where it was legal. Politics won out over science. Since the start of his second term, however, Obama has been doing a much better job on this issue. The White House finally threw in the towel on the "Plan B" fight, and by doing so, allowed science to trump politics. And now, by approving a study of the beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, science is getting the chance it has never had to offer up proof to the doubting drug warriors. Science just won a big victory over politics. And that is indeed newsworthy.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant