Vermont House Committee on Health and Welfare
April 14, 2004
“S. 76, The Medical Use of Marijuana”
Chairman Koch and distinguished members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on S. 76 entitled, “The Medical Use of Marijuana,” with particular emphasis on its potential impact on federal law enforcement.
Mr. Chairman, the overwhelming weight of evidence and experience conclusively show that marijuana and its consequences are dangerous to both users and non-users. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) therefore vigilantly enforces federal laws prohibiting manufacturing and distribution of marijuana. We believe that the proposal before you today would have a significant negative impact on federal enforcement. It is not only inconsistent with federal law, it obstructs federal law. We have seen from experience in other states that state laws permitting use of marijuana encourage violations of federal law and pose significant practical obstacles to law enforcement. Moreover, we do not believe that the proposal will accomplish its stated goals because, as the Institute of Medicine (IOM) put it, “[t]here is little future in smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication.” On balance, the potentially significant negative impact on public health and safety as well as law enforcement should weigh heavily against this legislation. We believe the citizens of Vermont will be best served by keeping state law consistent with the view Congress has settled upon based on the weight of scientific and medical evidence.
The Bill Will Adversely Impact Federal Law Enforcement
While states are free to define criminal acts and impose corresponding penalties in the manner they see fit, it does not follow that the absence of state penalties “legalizes” conduct that remains unlawful under federal law. More than seven years of experience have demonstrated that when a state legalizes marijuana under its law, residents are effectively encouraged to violate federal drug laws. This result undermines the protection to the public health and safety inherent in the federal drug approval process, creates public confusion, interferes with law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking, and runs afoul of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.
This is not rhetoric – let me illustrate these very real problems from the DEA’s experience in other states. For example, two investigations involving “medical” marijuana clubs demonstrate that purported “medical” use only hides everyday drug dealing. The clubs’ owners cultivated and distributed significant amounts of “medical” marijuana in the area, not only to “patients,” but to anyone who wanted to buy it. In one of the investigations, a witness claims to have seen more than 4,000 plants being cultivated inside one of the clubs. In the second case, approximately 979 plants and several pounds of processed marijuana were seized during the execution of a Federal search warrant. One of the owners admitted that he rented the property and grew the marijuana for his 120 “patients.” In addition to the contraband that was seized, documents indicating that the grower had made $140,000 in profits from his drug dealing were also seized.
Along these lines, I would like to point out that the bill before you today is conspicuously silent with regard to the fact that the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana, even in compliance with the bill, would violate federal law and subject the individuals engaged in such conduct to criminal and civil prosecution. That omission points to a glaring practical issue in the legislation – there is simply no way for it to be given effect without encouraging and facilitating trafficking in a federally controlled substance.
When the General Assembly considers this proposal, we hope it will consider how these types of laws undermine the efforts of law enforcement officials at every level nationwide. In the states that have passed these types of laws since 1996, longtime drug dealers have reinvented themselves as “caregivers” so that they can claim immunity from prosecution. This proposal and similar laws enacted in other states are written in a manner that makes it easy for any drug dealer to concoct a “medical” marijuana defense. The impact on law enforcement should be obvious, as a Maryland lawyer recently was publicly quoted as saying there “are a whole bunch of people who like marijuana who can now try to use this defense.”
Marijuana Use Is Dangerous to the User and Others
The DEA vigilantly enforces federal laws against marijuana trafficking for a simple reason that remains as compelling, if not more compelling, today than in the past: marijuana use is dangerous to both the user and the non-user, particularly children. This is true irrespective of whether or not its use is for purported “medical” purposes. While the list of these concerns is lengthy, I would like to highlight the most telling examples.
Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in America and a widespread social and human service concern. More young people are currently in treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol and all other illegal drugs combined, and mentions of marijuana use in emergency room visits have risen 176 percent since 1994, surpassing those of heroin. Any liberalization of marijuana policy will send a false and misleading message that marijuana is harmless if not affirmatively good for you, exacerbating the already significant problem of marijuana abuse. Use of marijuana by young people is a frequent precursor to the use of more dangerous drugs, and signals a significantly enhanced likelihood of drug problems in adult life. For example, a study done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2002 found that 62 percent of the adults who first tried marijuana before they were 15 years old were likely to go on to cocaine – but the same was true of only one-half of one percent of adults who had never tried marijuana.
Smoked marijuana is also dangerous to those who use it, belying any beneficent rationale in permitting its use. Marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. Marijuana may promote cancer of the respiratory tract and provide heightened risk of lung infection and many other diseases. The British Medical Association (BMA) is so concerned about the negative health impact of liberalization initiatives such as the one before you today that it recently voiced “extreme concern” that altering the criminal penalties for marijuana use would create a misleading impression that marijuana is safe to use that the BMA emphasized that “the public must be made aware of the harmful effects we know result from smoking the drug.”
As DEA Administrator Tandy repeatedly emphasizes, the significance of maintaining cohesive and coordinated laws against marijuana use is the harm it causes to the non-user, which is in no way reduced when use of the drug is for claimed “medical” purposes. One compelling example is drugged driving. Marijuana affects alertness, concentration, perception, coordination, and reaction time – skills that are necessary for safe driving. A roadside study of reckless drivers in Tennessee found that 33 percent of those tested who were not under the influence of alcohol tested positive for marijuana. Although this bill specifically exempts drugged driving from its protection, there can be little serious doubt that any increase in use will proportionally increase drugged driving. Use of marijuana and other illicit drugs also comes at significant expense to society in terms of lost employee productivity, public health care costs, and accidents. Finally, research shows a link between frequent marijuana use and increased violent behavior, and young people who use marijuana weekly are nearly four times more likely than non-users to engage in violence.
Smoked Marijuana is Not Medicine
Supporters of liberalization of marijuana laws attempt to balance these demonstrable and widespread social harms and health risks against purported benefits for a few users for claimed “medical” purposes. The evidence is clear, however, that smoked marijuana not only has “little future” as medicine, as the IOM put it, but that there is not established scientific and medical proof that marijuana has therapeutic value.
It is clear to DEA that there is no consensus on the medical evidence that smoking marijuana helps patients. The American Medical Association has rejected pleas to endorse smoked marijuana as medicine, and instead has urged that marijuana remain a “Schedule I” drug (which by definition has no accepted medical use) pending further research. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has concluded that existing studies “have not provided convincing evidence that marijuana benefits people with MS,” further emphasizing that “marijuana is not recommended as a treatment” and that “long-term use of marijuana may be associated with significant side effects”.
Just as importantly, marijuana has not been approved for use as a “medicine” under the rigorous federal drug approval process conducted by the Food and Drug Administration as required by law. That process prohibits any drug from being sold as a medicine unless it has been proven in sound clinical studies to be both safe and effective for its intended use. To date, no sound scientific study has shown that smoking marijuana is both safe and effective for any disease or condition. Our medical system relies on proven scientific research, not polling results or supposition.
The federal government continues, however, to support research into the medical efficacy of certain isolated properties and ingredients of marijuana. One such example is Marinol, which is a safe, pill form of synthetic THC that has been effective in promoting health without delivering all the harmful substances that are found in smoked marijuana. The DEA has approved and will continue to approve research into whether there may be other appropriate uses for THC or other specific ingredients of marijuana. But even if smoking marijuana makes people “feel better,” that is not enough to call it a “medicine” any more than one would suggest using heroin to treat a sick person. Medicine must be defined by scientists and physicians and not lobbyists, and compassion dictates that harmful drugs should not be touted as medicine to an unsuspecting public.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, the legislation under consideration will pose significant obstacles to federal law enforcement and exacerbate social harms and health risks to both users and non-users of marijuana use without providing any of the benefits it purports to offer. I very much appreciate the invitation to testify today and would be glad to answer any questions.