Richard Davenport-Hines

  • The Science of Marijuana by Leslie Iversen
    Oxford, 278 pp, £18.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 19 513123 1
  • Drug Diplomacy in the 20th Century: An International History by William McAllister
    Routledge, 344 pp, £16.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 415 17989 0
  • The Control of Fuddle and Flash: A Sociological History of the Regulation of Alcohol and Opiates by Jan-Willem Gerritsen
    Brill, 278 pp, €52.00, April 2000, ISBN 90 04 11640 0
  • Drugs and the Law: Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
    Police Foundation, 148 pp, £20.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 947692 47 9

‘Marijuana has no therapeutic value, and its use is therefore always an abuse and a vice,’ trumpeted Harry Anslinger, the implacable Commissioner of the US Bureau of Narcotics in 1953:

While opium can be a blessing or a curse, depending on its use, marijuana is only and always a scourge which undermines its victims and degrades them mentally, morally and physically . . . In the earliest stages of intoxication, the will power is destroyed and inhibitions and restraints are released; the moral barricades are broken down and often debauchery and sexuality result. Where mental instability is inherent, the behaviour is generally violent. An egotist will enjoy delusions of grandeur, the timid individual will suffer anxiety, and the aggressive one often will resort to acts of violence and crime. Dormant tendencies are released . . . Constant use produces an incapacity for work and a disorientation . . . often leading to insanity after prolonged use.

Anslinger’s claims have been endorsed by high officials ever since. ‘There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed,’ declared the former US drugs czar General Barry McCaffrey in 1996. ‘This is not a medicine. This is a cruel hoax.’ Our own Home Secretary endorsed this line after his son’s arrest for a drug offence in 1997. Ann ‘zero-tolerance’ Widdecombe is even more opposed to it (except, it seems, when used by Shadow Cabinet colleagues and other supposedly ‘educated, articulate people’).

Anslinger was lying. In The Science of Marijuana, Leslie Iversen has produced the most authoritative and up-to-date scientific assessment of the medical uses of cannabis now available. He recalls that cannabis was recommended for the treatment of constipation, gout, malaria, rheumatism and menstrual problems in a Chinese compendium of herbal medicines published around 2800 BC. It was a medicament in many subsequent cultures. Difficulties in standardising cannabis preparations meant, however, that it was not widely used in 19th-century Western medicine. Even so, in 1937, when its medical use was suppressed in the US, there were 28 different medicines in which it was an ingredient. In 1964 came confirmation that virtually all the pharmacological activity in hashish extracts is attributable to one compound, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Later, the existence of specific receptors for cannabinoids in the brain and other tissues was established.

Early in the 1970s the US Drugs Enforcement Agency was petitioned to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug which could be prescribed by physicians. Finally, in 1986, after prolonged legal tussles, the DEA agreed to public hearings on the petition. The hearings lasted for more than two years. Despite the DEA’s legal expert recommending the rescheduling, and his conclusion that cannabis is ‘one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man’, the DEA denied the petition. Iversen refers to a 1990 finding that 44 per cent of US oncologists had suggested that a patient smoke marijuana for relief of the nausea induced by chemotherapy. If the drug were really unsafe for use even under medical supervision, as its Schedule I status affirms, this recommendation would have been unthinkable.

Despite the DEA’s obstruction, the discovery of the cannabinoid control system in the body has revitalised scientific research. Two synthetic cannabinoids have become available on prescription to patients in Europe and the US. The annual sales of dronabil (sold under the trade name of Marinol) in the US are estimated to be worth about $20 million: some 80 per cent of prescriptions are as an appetite stimulant for people with Aids or HIV, 10 per cent to counteract the nausea associated with chemotherapy and 10 per cent for other purposes. The Eli Lilly Company has developed nabilone: under the trade name of Cesamet it, too, is used to treat nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, although it also gave promising results in clinical trials in the treatment of anxiety. In addition, many patients with multiple sclerosis have reported benefiting from smoking cannabis. The possibility of its use in the treatment of glaucoma and epilepsy is being looked into.

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