For thousands of years, marijuana has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments. Until 1937, marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) was legal in the United States for all purposes. Presently, federal law allows only seven (7) Americans to use marijuana as a medicine.

On March 17, 1999, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that “there are some limited circumstances in which we recommend smoking marijuana for medical uses.” The IOM report released that day was the result of two years of research that was funded by the White House drug policy office, which comprised a meta-analysis of all existing data on marijuana’s therapeutic uses.

Medicinal Value

Scientific evidence verifies that marijuana has the following therapeutic effects:

  • Relief from nausea and increase of appetite;
  • Reduction of intraocular (“within the eye”) pressure;
  • Reduction of muscle spasms;
  • Relief from chronic pain.

Consequently, it is sometimes used to treat the symptoms of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other serious conditions. Nevertheless, federal laws and the laws of most states leave these patients subject to arrests, fines, court costs, property forfeiture, incarceration, probation, and criminal records.

Federal Law

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 federally prohibited marijuana. Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association opposed the Act, testifying that prohibition would ultimately prevent the medicinal uses of marijuana.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed all illicit and prescription drugs into five “schedules” (categories). Marijuana was placed in Schedule I, defining the substance as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medicinal use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

The federal penalty for possessing even one marijuana cigarette is up to a year in prison.

The Struggle In Court

In 1972, a petition was submitted to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – now the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)–to reschedule marijuana to make it available by prescription.

After 16 years of court battles, the DEA’s chief administrative law judge, Francis L. Young, ruled:

“Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. …

“… [T]he provisions of the [Controlled Substances] Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.

“It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance. …”

(September 6, 1988)

Marijuana’s placement in Schedule II would enable doctors to prescribe it to their patients. But top DEA officials rejected Judge Young’s ruling and refused to reschedule marijuana. Two appeals later, petitioners experienced their first defeat in the 22-year-old lawsuit. On February 18, 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) ruled that the DEA is allowed to reject its judge’s ruling and set its own criteria – enabling the DEA to keep marijuana in Schedule I.

Temporary Compassion

In 1975, Robert Randall, who suffered from glaucoma, was arrested for cultivating his own marijuana. He won his case by using the “medical necessity defense,” forcing the government to find a way to provide him with his medicine. As a result, the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access program was established, allowing patients to apply for special permission to receive marijuana from the federal government.

In 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service closed the program to all new applicants. On December 1, 1999, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated its medical marijuana policy, restating that the IND program would not be reopened. Consequently, the IND program remains in operation only for the seven surviving previously approved patients.

Public Opinion

There is tremendous public support for allowing patients to use medical marijuana:

  • Since 1996, a majority of voters in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state have voted in favor of ballot initiatives to remove criminal penalties for seriously ill people who grow or possess medical marijuana.
  • A 1990 scientific survey of oncologists (cancer specialists) found that 54% of those with an opinion favored the controlled medical availability of marijuana and 44% had already broken the law by suggesting at least once that a patient obtain marijuana illegally. [R. Doblin & M. Kleiman, "Marijuana as Antiemetic Medicine,"Journal of Clinical Oncology 9 (1991): 1314-1319.]
  • A Pew Research poll conducted February 14-19, 2001, found that 73% of American adults supported permitting doctors to prescribe marijuana for their patients. All other public opinion polls taken since the 1990s have shown between 60% and 80% support for making marijuana medically available.