Breaking Through

Cannabis legalization is a growing reality: 20 states permit medical marijuana use, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for all adults. But as more states line up — and more people light up — Columbia researchers wonder: what’s on the other side?

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2014
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Kleber also considers the medical-marijuana movement “a stalking horse for legalization.” He says he can make a pretty good case that medical marijuana is a fraud. In California, he claims, doctors provide marijuana cards willy-nilly at $150 a pop, mostly for supposed back pain, and in the absence of FDA standards. “Medical marijuana laws,” Kleber wrote (with coauthor Robert DuPont) in a 2012 commentary, “have challenged the way physicians practice medicine by asking them to recommend to their patients the use of a Schedule I illegal drug of abuse with no scientific approval, dosage control, or quality control” — Schedule I being, as stated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the “most dangerous” of its five categories, denoting drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Still, Kleber recognizes the plant’s success in relieving chemotherapy-induced nausea and boosting food intake in AIDS patients, and emphasizes that there are synthetic medications in pill form, such as dronabinol and nabilone, that are FDA-approved for these conditions. One component of cannabis, CBD (cannabidiol), is being studied for possible use for childhood epilepsy.

“There are at least sixty cannabinoids in the plant,” Kleber says. “We need to do controlled studies of these substances, which could be useful to treat a variety of conditions. But we need something of known purity and potency so that doctors know what they’re prescribing and patients know what they’re taking.”

“The marijuana today is a very different creature than it was in the 1960s, when John Lennon called it ‘a harmless giggle.’” — Herbert Kleber

This nod to possible health benefits hardly diminishes Kleber’s sense of the drug’s perils, however. Especially for young people.

“People who start smoking marijuana in their teens are much more likely to get into trouble with it, and get addicted,” he says.

And not just addicted.

“Marijuana does affect the brain. The younger you are when you start using it, the greater the risk that it will cause brain damage that will be with you the rest of your life.” 

Columbian Gold

Before we go on, let’s step back and see how we got here.

“Would there be propriety ... in suggesting the policy of encouraging the growth of Cotton and Hemp in such parts of the United States as are adapted to the culture of these articles?” wrote President George Washington to treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton 1776KC in 1791. At the time, the plant was a major crop, used for rope, fabric, and paper. With the rise of the cotton gin, demand for agricultural hemp fell, while medicinal hemp (sold in tincture form at the local druggist’s) was, by 1900, supplanted as a pain reliever by morphine. In 1906, one-time Columbia law student President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required drug labels to include any of ten substances considered dangerous, including cannabis; and another Law School attendee, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having sealed Prohibition’s death in 1933, signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, a bill of repressive taxation that made legal procurement infeasible.

The latter legislation was pushed by Harry J. Anslinger, the iron-fisted director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an office set up in 1930 under the Treasury Department. In the post-Prohibition era, Anslinger had found a new enemy — “marihuana,” a term used by Mexicans and advanced by the bureau for its seedy essence of foreignness. In statements submitted to Congress in 1937, Anslinger claimed that the “deleterious, even vicious, qualities of the drug render it highly dangerous to the mind and body,” and that “its use frequently leads to insanity.” Anslinger linked marijuana, which was common among jazz musicians, to race mixing and wild abandon, and touted stories from the yellow press of marijuana-fueled psychosis and murder, as immortalized in the 1936 movie Reefer Madness.

“It is true that if you use marijuana, you have a higher likelihood of using other illicit drugs, including heroin.” — Denise Kandel

In 1938, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, having learned that marijuana use was prevalent in the city, sought advice from the New York Academy of Medicine. The academy recommended that La Guardia form a panel to undertake the most in-depth study yet of cannabis use. The commission was composed largely of Columbia psychiatrists and sociologists, including Robert F. Loeb ’61HON, Leon H. Cornwall, and James McKeen Cattell, who years earlier was fired from the University by president Nicholas Murray Butler for his public opposition to the draft during World War I.

The La Guardia Committee Report was released in 1944. Among its findings was that “marihuana is not a drug of addiction, comparable to morphine, and that if tolerance is acquired, this is of a very limited degree. Furthermore, those who have been smoking marihuana for a period of years showed no mental or physical deterioration which may be attributed to the drug.”

Anslinger was furious. He denounced La Guardia, threatened the scientists with jail should they attempt more cannabis research, and pressured the American Medical Association to condemn the report. An April 1945 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated, in curiously Anslingerian prose, that “public officials will do well to disregard this unscientific, uncritical study, and continue to regard marihuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed.” Public officials did.

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