Medical Marijuana: Regulations Clash
Doctors are facing a dilemma: risk breaking the law or withhold a potential treatment.
Mastroianni's views hardly put him on the medical fringe. Physicians who
treat cancer patients have long been aware that smoking marijuana can relieve
the terrible nausea of chemotherapy, allowing patients to maintain the weight
crucial for survival. In fact, a survey conducted by Harvard Medical School in
1991 revealed that 44 percent of oncologists had proposed marijuana use to
Even some drug enforcement officials have broken ranks to back the medical
use of marijuana. In 1988 a DEA administrative law judge wrote that marijuana
should be classified as a Schedule II drug -- one that's safe for limited uses.
"Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically
active substances known to man," he said. "[It] has a currently
accepted medical use in treatment in the United States for nausea and vomiting
resulting from chemotherapy." The DEA rejected his opinion, though, and
recent attempts to have the courts reclassify marijuana have failed.
Most states, however, have their own laws regarding marijuana and
physicians. Since the late 1970s, 34 states have passed laws -- 24 of which
remain on the books -- that allow doctors to recommend marijuana or urge the
creation of research programs on cannabis. The trouble is, state law is
superseded by federal law, and the latter's position on pot is crystal clear:
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug on the DEA's list of controlled substances,
meaning it "has no currently accepted medical use" and cannot be
prescribed under any circumstances.
Nonetheless, after the Compassionate Use Act became law, Mastroianni wrote
letters recommending marijuana to three seriously ill patients. According to a
source close to the case, one of these patients showed his letter to police
after they pulled his son over and found a marijuana cigarette in the car.
Police gave the letter to the DEA, whose agents paid a visit to the
"It's a very frightening thing for a physician to be faced with,"
says Stephen N. Sherr, a San Francisco attorney. "On the one hand, you have
the obligation to inform your patients of your knowledge of medical issues that
bear on his or her case. And on the other hand, there is the potential criminal
liability that could completely wipe out your career. Even if you win, going
through a criminal action would be a nightmare."