The History of Medical Marijuana

Cannabis was a part of the Amer­i­can phar­ma­copoeia until 1942 and is cur­rently avail­able by pre­scrip­tion in the Nether­lands, Canada, Spain, and Italy in its whole plant form.

In 1937, the U.S. passed the first fed­eral law against cannabis, despite the objec­tions of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion (AMA). Dr. William C. Wood­ward, tes­ti­fy­ing on behalf of the AMA, told Con­gress that, “The Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion knows of no evi­dence that mar­i­juana is a dan­ger­ous drug” and warned that a pro­hi­bi­tion “loses sight of the fact that future inves­ti­ga­tion may show that there are sub­stan­tial med­ical uses for Cannabis.”

Iron­i­cally, the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment cur­rently grows and pro­vides cannabis for a small num­ber of patients. In 1976 the fed­eral gov­ern­ment cre­ated the Inves­ti­ga­tional New Drug (IND) com­pas­sion­ate access research pro­gram to allow patients to receive up to nine pounds of cannabis from the gov­ern­ment each year. Today, five sur­viv­ing patients still receive med­ical cannabis from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, paid for by fed­eral tax dollars.

In 1988, the DEA’s Chief Admin­is­tra­tive Law Judge, Fran­cis L. Young, ruled after exten­sive hear­ings that, “Mar­i­juana, in its nat­ural form, is one of the safest ther­a­peu­ti­cally active sub­stances known… It would be unrea­son­able, arbi­trary and capri­cious for the DEA to con­tinue to stand between those suf­fer­ers and the ben­e­fits of this sub­stance…” Yet the DEA refused to imple­ment this rul­ing based on a pro­ce­dural tech­ni­cal­ity and resists resched­ul­ing to this day.

In 1989, the FDA was flooded with new appli­ca­tions from peo­ple with HIV/AIDS. In June 1991, the Pub­lic Health Ser­vice announced that the pro­gram would be sus­pended because it under­mined fed­eral pro­hi­bi­tion. Despite this suc­cess­ful med­ical pro­gram and cen­turies of doc­u­mented safe use, cannabis is still clas­si­fied in Amer­ica as a Sched­ule I sub­stance “indi­cat­ing a high poten­tial for abuse and no accepted med­ical value. Health­care advo­cates have tried to resolve this con­tra­dic­tion through legal and admin­is­tra­tive chan­nels to no avail.

In 1996, patients and advo­cates turned to the state level for access, pass­ing voter ini­tia­tives in Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona that allowed for legal use of cannabis with a doctor’s rec­om­men­da­tion. These vic­to­ries were fol­lowed by the pas­sage of sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives in Alaska, Col­orado, Maine, Mon­tana, Nevada, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, and Wash­ing­ton D.C. The leg­is­la­tures of Hawaii, Mary­land, New Mex­ico Rhode Island, and Ver­mont have also acted on behalf of their cit­i­zens, and every leg­isla­tive ses­sion sees more bills intro­duced at the state level across the country.

In 1997, The Office of National Drug Con­trol Pol­icy com­mis­sioned the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine (IOM) to con­duct a com­pre­hen­sive study of the med­ical effi­cacy of cannabis ther­a­peu­tics. The IOM con­cluded that cannabis is a safe and effec­tive med­i­cine, patients should have access, and the gov­ern­ment should expand avenues for research and drug devel­op­ment. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has com­pletely ignored its find­ings and refused to act on its recommendations.

Despite the fed­eral bar­ri­ers to research, hun­dreds of peer-reviewed stud­ies have been pub­lished world­wide since the IOM report. While there is still much to learn, the med­ical poten­tial is indis­putable for a vari­ety of symp­toms and conditions.

In 1997, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment began a cam­paign to arrest and pros­e­cute med­ical cannabis patients and their providers. These raids resulted in two Supreme Court Cases, OCBC and Gon­za­les v. Raich. In each of these cases the Jus­tices found that the fed­eral law and state law can exist in con­flict and that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could con­tinue their cam­paign against med­ical cannabis patients if they so choose. How­ever, the Jus­tices ques­tioned “the wis­dom’ of going after patients and their providers and called on Con­gress to change the cur­rent laws to allow for med­ical use.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court deci­sion in Gon­za­les v. Raich, on June 6, 2005, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has inten­si­fied its war against patients across the state of Cal­i­for­nia. These raids have resulted in more than two-dozen patients and providers being need­lessly pros­e­cuted by the fed­eral government.

Unfor­tu­nately, these defen­dants will not be per­mit­ted to men­tion dur­ing trial that their use of cannabis was for legit­i­mate pur­poses and in accor­dance with state law. These raids alone are esti­mated to have cost tax­pay­ers over $10,000,000.

Patients who could and do ben­e­fit from cannabis ther­a­peu­tics face a vari­ety of chal­lenges at both the fed­eral and state lev­els. Patients have been made to need­lessly suf­fer because they have been denied access or, worse, because they have been impris­oned for using a med­i­cine their doc­tors recommended.

This brief his­tory of med­ical mar­i­juana was pro­vided by Amer­i­cans for Safe Access.