Here’s Why The Acting DEA Chief Is Wrong On Medical Marijuana

The following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

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The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration claimed that smoking marijuana has “never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.” That’s false: though information is limited on the topic, several studies have found smoked marijuana has medical benefits and mostly mild side effects.

Chuck Rosenberg spoke with reporters on the day that the DEA released its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. According to CBS News, he said he is bothered by the idea that marijuana is considered medicinal:

Rosenberg, Nov. 4: What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not. We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine — that is a joke. …

There are pieces of marijuana — extracts or constituents or component parts — that have great promise. But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana — which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana — it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.

First of all, it is incorrect to suggest that “smoking the leaf of marijuana” is “what people are talking about” with regard to medicinal marijuana. There are approved forms of the drug (or synthetic versions of its compounds) that come in pill form and do not need to be smoked or inhaled.

Secondly, even the smoked form of the drug indeed has been shown to be both safe and effective as a medicine, though only in a limited number of small studies. A review and meta-analysis of medical marijuana studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June, looked at 79 trials in total, but smoked cannabis was examined in only a few of them. Still, evidence regarding the smoked form of the drug does exist.

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