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This Article Was Originally Published in the Respected Scientific Journal "New Scientist" Date noted below:

Magazine section: Editorial

Let's chill out

New Scientist vol 160 issue 2160 - 14 November 1998, page 3

Despite pressure to let sick people use marijuana, governments are wary

THE STRENGTH of President Clinton's revival at the ballot box last week surprised everyone. But then, so did the number of votes cast in favour of the drug Clinton famously never inhaled.

In Alaska, Nevada, Washington and Arizona, voters all approved ballot paper motions asking that the smoking of marijuana should be made legal for people with certain illnesses. And in Britain this week, an inquiry launched by the House of Lords said that doctors should be allowed to prescribe cannabis on a named-patient basis (see p 24). So is the tide of opinion finally turning for the evil weed?

Not yet. The British government has not changed its view that relaxing the law on prescribing marijuana will require rigorous evidence of its effectiveness from clinical trials. Of course, scientific studies, long stifled by both British and US governments, should be carried out. But the Lords point out reasonably that anecdotal evidence of its value in relieving the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other conditions argues for a more immediate, compassionate approach.

The objection that prescription marijuana might end up being sold on the black market seems implausible. Allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana would actually make it easier to distinguish between medical and recreational users. And as the report rightly points out, doctors in Britain have been allowed to prescribe heroin for people in chronic pain, yet there is no evidence that this heroin ends up on the black market.

The biggest obstacles everywhere are political. In California, the state voted in favour of legalising marijuana for certain illnesses two years ago. And what happened? Federal law enforcers moved in to close down the growers' clubs that sprang up to supply patients. The US drugs tsar, Barry McCaffrey, continues to argue that the medical use of marijuana will send the wrong message to teenagers and encourage drug abuse.

In the US, proponents of medical marijuana are now full of talk about a new era. And in Britain, the Lords report is being welcomed. But there is a way to go before either country can really be rational about the issue.