Recently interviewed on Meet the Press, former president Bill Clinton defended the nearly half of the United States that has legalized medical marijuana, saying there is “a lot of evidence” for medicinal use of the drug, even though it contradicts federal law. Invoking the “laboratories of democracy” defense, often cited by conservatives and more recently, progressives and coined by Louis Brandeis as a legitimate excuse for states to defy federal law when it lags behind changing conditions on the ground and/or popular opinion, Clinton seems to be repositioning himself on an issue that he has been on the wrong side of since claiming he “didn’t inhale” when he smoked marijuana in his youth.
Clinton’s turnaround in support of states' drug policy reforms in the face of federal intransigence is admirable (he was a staunch supporter of the war on drugs as president), as is his recognition of the significant body of evidence bolstering the medicinal use of marijuana for a plethora of conditions. Still, he also refers to “unanswered questions” concerning medical marijuana. But there is a simple reason why questions remain, as the New York Times wrote about recently:
Research into marijuana’s effects is thin not because of a lack of scientific interest, but chiefly because the federal government has long classified it as a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use”... The legal and administrative hoops make it hard for investigators to start the randomized, placebo-controlled trials that are the gold standard of medical research and the basis for determining which drugs are effective, at what doses, and in which patients.
In fact, the Drug Policy Alliance has just released a scathing indictment of the Drug Enforcement Administration with detailed case studies revealing “a number of DEA practices that maintain the existing, scientifically unsupported drug scheduling system and obstruct research that might alter current drug schedules.” As the report makes clear, the federal government doesn’t just make marijuana research simply “hard” but rather nearly impossible.
So the NYT doesn’t get it quite right with the title of their article, “Politicians’ Prescriptions for Marijuana Defy Doctors and Data.” Politicians, patients, and, yes, many doctors aren’t defying (other) doctors and data, but are responding to an environment where little data is allowed to be generated--exactly the kind of thing the “laboratories of democracy” ethos is there to foment.
As for Clinton’s recent awakening on the medical marijuana issue, of course, he’s well-regarded as a savvy politician. Therefore, he’s no doubt aware of the sea change in public opinion on medical (and recreational) marijuana, as well as changing state laws. Even more surprising has been Congress’s recent foray into the issue, with a bipartisan amendment passing the House of Representatives, and a similar one introduced in the Senate, disallowing the federal government to intervene in state’s medical marijuana laws.
So, yes, let’s have the states serve as “laboratories of democracy” for medical marijuana--and drug policy reform in general. But if those calling for more and better research into marijuana as medicine want their concerns addressed, then let laboratories across the country serve as, well, laboratories of scientific research.
Daniel Altman is a communications fellow for the Drug Policy Alliance.