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Supreme Court Ponders Medical Marijuana Case

Patients Say Federal Government Oversteps Authority in Raids
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"There is no doubt that marijuana does reduce pain. The big question is whether marijuana is better than other drugs," says Steven Childers, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at Wake Forest University who was a member of the panel that authored the report.

The report also stressed that smoking was not a safe or effective way to administer marijuana because it is carcinogenic and cannot deliver a consistent dose of marijuana's active ingredients. Childers added that most doctors he knows support allowing terminally ill patients to use marijuana, since the benefits of the drug are likely to outweigh the risks.

But federal drug officials have warned that allowing states to legalize marijuana undermines their ability to enforce drug laws. John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has repeatedly warned that medical legalization sends a mixed message to youths who are considering trying drugs.

Supporters of the Bush administration's case also say that voter initiatives in California and other states sidestep drug safety regulation usually reserved for the FDA. Allowing voters to choose which drugs to approve could cause a return to the pre-FDA days when traveling salesmen sold bogus "snake oil" treatments to vulnerable patients, says David Evans, a lawyer who helped author an amicus brief for the Drug Free America Foundation in support of the federal government.

"We would have 50 different standards in 50 different states and we would have no trust in our medical system," he tells WebMD.

Eric E. Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said state laws are necessary because the federal government has balked at widespread evidence that marijuana is safe. "We wouldn't be in this place if bureaucrats hadn't rejected science."

Review boards overseeing government research grants are "excited" about the potential of marijuana to treat disease symptoms, said Childers, who serves on several such panels. The challenge is studying the drug in a way that reliably measures the drug dose that patients get and its side effects.

"So many people have so many agendas that it's really hard to separate the medicine from the politics," he said.

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