STATEMENT OF PETER McWILLIAMS BEFORE THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
I would like to thank the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine for this opportunity to speak.
I have for the past thirty years made my living as a nonfiction writer. I have written more than 30 nonfiction books that have sold more than 10,000,000 copies and have appeared five times on the New York Times bestseller list. I am generally acknowledged as someone who can research a subject, especially a technical or medical subject, and report on it accurately in lay terms.
I was diagnosed in March 1996 with both AIDS and cancer. I had not used marijuana for decades prior to my diagnosis. My treatment included as many as fifteen medications, most taken orally, most with nausea as a side effect.
I turned to medical marijuana. It was miraculous. Within seconds of the first inhalation, the nausea was gone. Anecdotal evidence? Absolutely, but it’s all the evidence I needed.
I turned my research staff and abilities toward medical marijuana. Yes, it ended nausea, but at what cost? A weakened immune system? I hardly needed that. Addiction? Lung cancer? All I knew about marijuana at that time was what I had "read in the newspapers."
To sum up in five minutes what I have learned in the past 21 months of fairly intensive investigation is, of course, difficult. It is easier to do it, in fact, in five words: "Marijuana is safe, effective medicine." Now, for my attempt at a five minute summary:
1. Marijuana is "safe" by any standard of medicine. To say it is safe, of course, is not to say it is harmless. Inhaling smoldering plant material is not harmless. But, when compared to medications given daily, even to children, marijuana is safe.
One overwhelming fact about marijuana illustrates its relative safety: There has not been one reported overdose death of marijuana in 5000 years of recorded human use. Not one. Aspirin, so safe it is even available in sugary chewable tablets for children, can cause internal bleeding that kills more than 1000 Americans each year.
The ratio of marijuana’s therapeutic dose to overdose is 1:40,000. As you know, this is an astonishing safety ratio, one that is not approached by almost any other therapeutically active substance. Alcohol, by comparison, has a safety ratio from 1:4 to 1:10, and alcohol is an active ingredient in hundreds of over-the-counter medications.
In 1989, the DEA’s own Administrative Judge, Francis E. Young, after two years of hearings, determined that marijuana is "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."
Long-term, large-scale studies comparing heavy (daily) marijuana smokers to nonsmokers have shown little difference in overall health or life expectancy. For example, a Kaiser Permanente study published in the April 1997 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, covering ten years of mortality statistics of 65,000 patients, which included 14,000 marijuana smokers, concluded, "Relatively few adverse clinical health effects from the chronic use of marijuana have been documented in humans. [However,] the criminalization of marijuana use may itself be a health hazard, since it may expose the consumer to violence and criminal activity."
An editorial in the November 11, 1995 issue of The Lancet began, "The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health."
The list goes on, and I only have five minutes, so I will now move on to my second point, "effective."
2. Medical marijuana is effective. Considering marijuana’s relative safety, I maintain that there no need for the sick to have to wait for even one more study before marijuana can be deemed an "effective" treatment—perhaps not always the most effective treatment, but an effective treatment—for a long list of ailments. Allow me to explain.
Medical marijuana does not cure a thing. I doubt if anyone testifying today will say marijuana is a cure in the true medical sense of that word, as, say, penicillin cures bacterial infections. What medical marijuana does, for some patients, is temporarily alleviate certain symptoms—and symptoms only—of illness, trauma, or the side effects of medical treatment. Like insulin or aspirin, marijuana is a treatment, not a cure.
As such, a patient knows instantly whether medical marijuana is a successful treatment—if it works for that patient in that moment, it is. If pain is lessened, if nausea turns to hunger, if involuntary mussel spasms ease, or if blinding eye pressure becomes comfortable vision, then medical marijuana is, for that patient, an effective medication.
As scientists, I know you can understand at once the difference between a medicine that claims only to temporarily alleviate symptoms and a medicine that claims to cure. Listen to the anecdotal claims. The anecdotes are of easing symptoms, not of curing illness.
As such, although further testing is needed to place medical marijuana’s effectiveness on a scale of relative usefulness in comparison with other available treatments, there is no need served—other than political—in keeping this herb away from sick people even a minute longer.
The alleviation of symptoms, however, can have life and death consequences. In my case, if I had not been able to keep down the chemotherapy medication, or even enough food to keep me alive during chemotherapy, I would be dead now. As it is, the chemotherapy and radiation was successful, and my cancer is in remission Today, if I am not able to keep down the antivirals and protease inhibitor that my doctors tell me are keeping my AIDS at bay, I could very well develop an AIDS-related illness and die. I am alive thanks to the latest miracles of modern medical science, and one ancient herb.
I close by making a plea to you, as scientists. I am merely lay person, but I am as passionate about science as most people are about religion or sports. The scientific method is our best way of separating fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, good medicine from snake oil salesmen.
Science itself has been under attack by those who want to replace truth with their personal belief systems. This is not new. This is, in fact, to be expected. But in attacking medical marijuana, some scientists—physicians!—have, taken on the tools of political advocates. Their supposedly "scientific" statements are heavy with innuendo, omissions, distortions, half-truths, saber rattling, scare tactics, and inaccuracies.
These tactics are to be expected of politicians, but I submit to you they cannot and should not be tolerated in a medical, scientific exploration of marijuana. Scientists should be held to a higher standard than political lobbyists. I urge you to set and maintain these higher standards during your investigation, and be openly critical of scientists who attempt to treat you, The National Academy of Sciences, the way they commonly treat CNN, readers of their web pages, potential donors to their non-profit anti-marijuana organizations, and Congressional Committees.
Pardon my outrage, but these are doctors using deception at actively keep medicine away from sick people. As scientists, you can see through sham science. Let those who choose to present such travesties of science before this august body do so at their own professional peril. I ask you to evaluate these scientists not on their politics or their conclusions, but on the accuracy of their reporting of scientific facts. In wisely removing the exploration of medical marijuana from politics, I ask you to separate those scientists who distort science to fit their personal political agenda—or an agenda they are hired to support—from scientists who are committed to scientific truth above personal or prevailing politics.
These are the same scientists, by the way, who will be on Capitol Hill and calling press conferences within hours of the issuance of The National Academy’s final report on medical marijuana*. They will be attacking you—individually and as a group—for the very same sins of which they are ongoingly guilty themselves. These scientist have sold out so completely that truth is their greatest threat, and you, as representatives of the National Academy of Sciences, are the guardians of truth.
We sick people have few supporters in our fight for medical marijuana. Our government has not just turned a deaf ear to our pleas, they actively attack us on all fronts, most painfully through the National Institutes on Drug Abuse.
We have little money to fight with. Yes, a Soros may donate a million dollars here or there, but how can this compare to the $40 billion spent each year by the government on the War on Drugs, or even the $2 million-a-day budget of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America? The War on Drugs is being fought in sickrooms across the country, and we sick people are not equipped to battle this alone.
Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey has repeatedly stated: "If [medical marijuana is] safe and effective, then medicine and science ought to judge it, not politics."
We count on you, an independent group of scientists who have only truth to answer to, as our last, best hope for legal, uncontaminated, inexpensive, readily available medical marijuana. We place our futures, the quality of health care, and the integrity of science itself, into your capable hands.
We know you will not let us down.
I thank you.