Because We Say So

Thousands of people in 16 U.S. states and in the District of Columbia take a prescribed drug that has no “currently accepted medical use,” according to a recent government ruling.

If the medication involved were a typical blood pressure pill or arthritis treatment, this sort of pronouncement would come from the Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with determining whether medications are safe and effective. But the drug is cannabis, and the ruling came from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category that includes substances with a high potential for abuse and no medical applications. Since then, marijuana’s Schedule I status has been regularly contested by groups and by individuals. The recent DEA decision was in response to a petition originally filed around nine years ago. (Explaining the delay, Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the DEA, told the Los Angeles Times, “The regulatory process is just a time-consuming one that usually takes years to go through.”) The classification is significant because Schedule I drugs, such as heroin, are illegal for all use.

The DEA defended marijuana’s current classification by citing a lack of scientific studies proving its medical utility. But, as critics of the decision have been quick to point out, one of the major reasons marijuana has not been studied more extensively is because of its Schedule I classification. For the medical community to establish “accepted” uses for a drug, doctors and scientists must be free to study it. Sometimes accepted uses arise out of doctors’ legal “off-label” prescription of various medications to treat conditions for which they have not been formally approved. Though some studies of marijuana’s medical benefits have been conducted – and most of them have shown promising results – the process remains tangled in red tape.

Of course, no one really expected the DEA to come down on the side of medicinal marijuana. As its name suggests, the Drug Enforcement Agency is in the business of enforcing laws, not investigating novel treatment options.

The DEA’s website contains plenty of pages explaining why marijuana is so bad. On one, it claims that marijuana is harmful because it “contains more than 400 chemicals, including most of the harmful substances found in tobacco smoke.” If harmful side effects disqualified pharmaceuticals from medical use, we would not see many of the warning-laden advertisements that populate prime-time network television.

On another page, the DEA says marijuana actually does have a medical use, but that the smoked form of the drug does not need to be legal because the active ingredient, THC, has already been isolated and replicated in the synthetic prescription drug Marinol. So, according to the DEA, marijuana needs to be kept away from people because it is harmful in the same ways as cigarettes – which are excluded from the Controlled Substances Act – but marijuana is also different because it is medically useful, while cigarettes are not.

Screwy logic, but that is not the DEA’s fault. It is not in the business of writing laws; it is in the business of enforcing them. Why ask cops to play doctor?

Now that DEA has issued its final ruling, proponents of medical marijuana can challenge the agency’s position in court. Previous challenges have failed, but they came before the widespread movement among states to authorize medical marijuana in spite of the federal law to the contrary.

There is reason to hope that the courts will rule differently this time. With all those doctors prescribing marijuana and all those people taking it, judges may finally be ready to throw out the government’s position: “Cannabis has no medical use because we say so.”

About Larry M. Elkin 534 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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