My Statement to the National Academy of Sciences Institute
of Medicine, December 1997
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
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
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 muscle 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
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
We know you will not let us down.
I thank you.